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Hydrologic Sensitivities of Colorado River Runoff to Changes in Precipitation and Temperature

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  • 1 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
  • 2 Division of Climate, Atmospheric Sciences, and Physical Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California
  • 3 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
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Abstract

The Colorado River is the primary water source for much of the rapidly growing southwestern United States. Recent studies have projected reductions in Colorado River flows from less than 10% to almost 50% by midcentury because of climate change—a range that has clouded potential management responses. These differences in projections are attributable to variations in climate model projections but also to differing land surface model (LSM) sensitivities. This second contribution to uncertainty—specifically, variations in LSM runoff change with respect to precipitation (elasticities) and temperature (sensitivities)—are evaluated here through comparisons of multidecadal simulations from five commonly used LSMs (Catchment, Community Land Model, Noah, Sacramento Soil Moisture Accounting model, and Variable Infiltration Capacity model) all applied over the Colorado River basin at ⅛° latitude by longitude spatial resolution. The annual elasticity of modeled runoff (fractional change in annual runoff divided by fractional change in annual precipitation) at Lees Ferry ranges from two to six for the different LSMs. Elasticities generally are higher in lower precipitation and/or runoff regimes; hence, the highest values are for models biased low in runoff production, and the range of elasticities is reduced to two to three when adjusted to current runoff climatology. Annual temperature sensitivities (percent change in annual runoff per degree change in annual temperature) range from declines of 2% to as much as 9% per degree Celsius increase at Lees Ferry. For some LSMs, small areas, primarily at midelevation, have increasing runoff with increasing temperature; however, on a spatial basis, most sensitivities are negative.

Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean Contribution Number 1871.

Current affiliation: CH2M HILL, San Diego, California.

Corresponding author address: Dennis P. Lettenmaier, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Box 352700, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195. E-mail: dennisl@u.washington.edu

Abstract

The Colorado River is the primary water source for much of the rapidly growing southwestern United States. Recent studies have projected reductions in Colorado River flows from less than 10% to almost 50% by midcentury because of climate change—a range that has clouded potential management responses. These differences in projections are attributable to variations in climate model projections but also to differing land surface model (LSM) sensitivities. This second contribution to uncertainty—specifically, variations in LSM runoff change with respect to precipitation (elasticities) and temperature (sensitivities)—are evaluated here through comparisons of multidecadal simulations from five commonly used LSMs (Catchment, Community Land Model, Noah, Sacramento Soil Moisture Accounting model, and Variable Infiltration Capacity model) all applied over the Colorado River basin at ⅛° latitude by longitude spatial resolution. The annual elasticity of modeled runoff (fractional change in annual runoff divided by fractional change in annual precipitation) at Lees Ferry ranges from two to six for the different LSMs. Elasticities generally are higher in lower precipitation and/or runoff regimes; hence, the highest values are for models biased low in runoff production, and the range of elasticities is reduced to two to three when adjusted to current runoff climatology. Annual temperature sensitivities (percent change in annual runoff per degree change in annual temperature) range from declines of 2% to as much as 9% per degree Celsius increase at Lees Ferry. For some LSMs, small areas, primarily at midelevation, have increasing runoff with increasing temperature; however, on a spatial basis, most sensitivities are negative.

Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean Contribution Number 1871.

Current affiliation: CH2M HILL, San Diego, California.

Corresponding author address: Dennis P. Lettenmaier, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Box 352700, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195. E-mail: dennisl@u.washington.edu
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