As the West warms, a drier Colorado River system could see as much as a one-in-two chance of fully depleting all of its reservoir storage by mid-century assuming current management practices continue on course, according to a new University of Colorado at Boulder study.
The study, in press in the American Geophysical Union journal, Water Resources Research, looked at the effects of a range of reductions in Colorado River stream flow on future reservoir levels and the implications of different management strategies. Roughly 30 million people depend on the Colorado River — which hosts more than a dozen dams along its 1,450 journey from Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California — for drinking and irrigation water.
The Colorado River system is presently enduring its 10th year in a drought that began in 2000, said lead study author Balaji Rajagopalan, a CU-Boulder associate professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering. Fortunately, the river system entered the drought with the reservoirs at approximately 95 percent of capacity. The reservoir system is presently at 59 percent of capacity, about the same as this time last year, said Rajagopalan, also a fellow at CU-Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.