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Basinwide Hydroclimatic Drought in the Colorado River Basin

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  • 1 Integrated Modeling and Prediction Division, U.S. Geological Survey, Denver, Colorado
  • 2 Integrated Modeling and Prediction Division, U.S. Geological Survey, Lawrence, Kansas
  • 3 The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona
  • 4 Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Bozeman, Montana
  • 5 University of Nevada, Reno, Reno, Nevada
  • 6 Nevada State Climate Office, Reno, Nevada
  • 7 Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Anchorage, Alaska
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Abstract

The Colorado River basin (CRB) supplies water to approximately 40 million people and is essential to hydropower generation, agriculture, and industry. In this study, a monthly water balance model is used to compute hydroclimatic water balance components (i.e., potential evapotranspiration, actual evapotranspiration, and runoff) for the period 1901–2014 across the entire CRB. The time series of monthly runoff is aggregated to compute water-year runoff and then used to identify drought periods in the basin. For the 1901–2014 period, eight basinwide drought periods were identified. The driest drought period spanned years 1901–04, whereas the longest drought period occurred during 1943–56. The eight droughts were primarily driven by winter precipitation deficits rather than warm temperature anomalies. In addition, an analysis of prehistoric drought for the CRB—computed using tree-ring-based reconstructions of the Palmer drought severity index—indicates that during some past centuries drought frequency was higher than during the twentieth century and that some centuries experienced droughts that were much longer than those during the twentieth century. More frequent or longer droughts than those that occurred during the twentieth century, combined with continued warming associated with climate change, may lead to substantial future water deficits in the CRB.

h Corresponding author: Gregory J. McCabe, gmccabe@usgs.gov

Abstract

The Colorado River basin (CRB) supplies water to approximately 40 million people and is essential to hydropower generation, agriculture, and industry. In this study, a monthly water balance model is used to compute hydroclimatic water balance components (i.e., potential evapotranspiration, actual evapotranspiration, and runoff) for the period 1901–2014 across the entire CRB. The time series of monthly runoff is aggregated to compute water-year runoff and then used to identify drought periods in the basin. For the 1901–2014 period, eight basinwide drought periods were identified. The driest drought period spanned years 1901–04, whereas the longest drought period occurred during 1943–56. The eight droughts were primarily driven by winter precipitation deficits rather than warm temperature anomalies. In addition, an analysis of prehistoric drought for the CRB—computed using tree-ring-based reconstructions of the Palmer drought severity index—indicates that during some past centuries drought frequency was higher than during the twentieth century and that some centuries experienced droughts that were much longer than those during the twentieth century. More frequent or longer droughts than those that occurred during the twentieth century, combined with continued warming associated with climate change, may lead to substantial future water deficits in the CRB.

h Corresponding author: Gregory J. McCabe, gmccabe@usgs.gov
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