On the causes of declining Colorado River streamflows
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On the causes of declining Colorado River streamflows

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  • Journal Title:
    Water Resources Research
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    The Colorado River is the primary surface water resource in the rapidly growing U.S. Southwest. Over the period 1916–2014, the Upper Colorado River Basin naturalized streamflow declined by 16.5%, despite the fact that annual precipitation in the UCRB over that period increased slightly (+1.4%). In order to examine the causes of the runoff declines, we performed a set of experiments with the Variable Infiltration Capacity hydrology model. Our results show that the pervasive warming has reduced snowpacks and enhanced evapotranspiration over the last 100 years; over half (53%) of the long‐term decreasing runoff trend is associated with the general warming. Negative winter precipitation trends have occurred in the handful of highly productive subbasins that account for over half of the streamflow at Lee's Ferry. We also compared a midcentury drought with the (ongoing) post‐Millennium Drought and find that whereas the earlier drought was caused primarily by pervasive low‐precipitation anomalies across UCRB, higher temperatures have played a large role in the post‐Millennium Drought. The post‐Millennium Drought has also been exacerbated by negative precipitation anomalies in several of the most productive headwater basins. Finally, we evaluate the UCRB April–July runoff forecast for 2017, which decreased dramatically as the runoff season progressed. We find that while late winter and spring 2017 was anomalously warm, the proximate cause of most of the forecast reduction was anomalous late winter and early spring dryness in UCRB, which followed exceptionally large (positive) early winter precipitation anomalies.
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    Wat. Resour. Resear. 54(9): 6739-6756, 2018
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