The possible effects of climatic fluctuations on renewable water supplies in the western United States was examined, especially as it is impacted by the growth of population and water consumption in recent decades.
Precipitation fluctuations in the Colorado River Basin states have differed depending upon their location, but have tended to fluctuate with a time scale of one to two decades. Longer-term regimes may also be operative. For example, the Upper Basin states (Colorado and Utah) experienced a prolonged wet interval from about the turn of this century to around 1930; from 1930 to around 1978, drier than normal years tended to outnumber wet ones; and since 1978 the Upper Basin has been exceedingly wet. Lower Basin states also experienced the early wet period and drier conditions after the mid-1940s, but they undergo somewhat different alternations of wetness and dryness. However, from the point of view of water supply, precipitation variability in the Upper Basin, particularly in Colorado, is more critical.
Reservoir capacity in the and western states is expected to gain little in additional storage capacity during the next couple of decades; in addition, withdrawal of water from the Colorado River is approaching the legal limits. The effect of a future prolonged drought on the order of those which have occurred in recent decades, or in a worse case, those which have occurred in past centuries from tree ring studies, could have far more serious consequences than any in previous experience due to the large population increases in the region. These population trends show all signs of continuing, at least in the near future. The impact of a drought, however, would depend on the level of reservoir capacity that is present at the time of drought onset as well as its intensity and longevity; reservoirs in the West are presently at or near capacity.