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UW’s Douglas to Provide Colorado River Basin Communities with Data to Make Sound Water-Use Decisions

June 7, 2012
Man smiling
Craig Douglas, a UW School of Energy Resources professor of mathematics and director for the Institute for Scientific Computation, is teaming with UW professor Fred Ogden to create a computational model of the upper hydrology of the Colorado River Basin.

In the last decade, a number of California companies -- with employees in tow -- fled the Golden State and relocated to less expensive real estate between Denver and Boulder to set up shop.  

While the business migration was a dollar-and-cents decision, the burgeoning population created also put an extra drain on the Colorado River Basin, a water body already significantly taxed by seven states.

Craig Douglas hopes to play a part in helping communities located in the basin carefully plan their water use now and decades into the future while continuing to generate hydroelectric power, a green form of energy production. Douglas, a University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources professor of mathematics and director for the Institute for Scientific Computations, is teaming with UW professor Fred Ogden to study the upper hydrology of the Colorado River Basin.

While Ogden is the field hydrologist, Douglas will model the collected data on the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) in Cheyenne this fall. His role, which he dubs "the card-carrying computer scientist," will be to run Ogden's data on tens of thousands of CPU cores.

Currently, most computer models can scale up to an area of about one square kilometer, Douglas says.  But even when an area is scaled down to 100 meters, such a model is still missing a number of details, he says.

"If you can get down to (a scale of) 1 meter, you will have something extremely accurate," he says. "In order to go from 100 meters to 10 to one, you need a large amount of computer memory. If you can put 50,000 to 70,000 CPUs on this task, you'll still have to run the program for a week."

But the payoff could be invaluable, helping basin communities plan their water-use management. As Douglas says, "It would be great (for communities) to know in March what your water levels will be in November."

Water worries

Because of the increasing population in the Upper Basin, including parts of Colorado and the Salt Lake City region, Douglas has concerns.

"The worry is, in 20-25 years, when the I-25 corridor -- from Denver to Fort Collins -- will be all towns. You won't see open space anymore," Douglas says. "People need to start planning for when there won't be enough water in the region. And they need to plan far enough in advance to be able to plan for (water use for) people in the lower regions."

Under the 1922 Colorado River Basin Compact, Upper Basin states -- Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico -- have to provide a minimum of 7.5 million acre feet of water annually to the Lower Basin states, which include Arizona, California and Nevada. One acre foot of water is defined as one acre of water a foot deep, which translates to roughly enough water for a family of four for one year.

With population growth continuing in the Upper Basin, Douglas is concerned those Upper Basin states may have future trouble meeting their annual water obligations to Lower Basin states.

The Green River, which is a tributary of the Colorado River, is the first area that will be modeled, Douglas says. The river is a good starting point to study because it is small; historical data are available; a number of sensors already are in place at the water body in which lidar (optical remote sensing technology) can collect data; and it won't require 50,000 CPUs to create a computer model from the data, Douglas says.

"The (Green River basin) has many features in which we're interested," Douglas says. "It's an area that floods in the summer and receives snow melt. It provides you a river, a swamp and all kinds of geographical features. It flows into the Colorado River Basin and the test area is entirely in Wyoming."

Lake Powell is another water body that will be closely scrutinized. Lake Powell, which straddles the Arizona and Utah borders, is the second-largest man-made reservoir in terms of maximum water capacity. It stores 24.3 million acre feet of water for Upper Basin states.

If long-term drought conditions occur as they have in the past, Douglas is concerned that water levels would decline. Based on historical data, Douglas says water levels in Lake Powell are lower than they were 50 years ago. With less water in storage to send to states in the Lower Basin, Upper Basin states would be at the mercy of relying on more precipitation, snowmelt and water run-off  -- all of which would be scant in long-term drought conditions.

Without decreasing the amount of water the Upper Basin has to provide the Lower Basin under the compact, the population in the Upper Basin would have to significantly curtail their water use, Douglas says.

Supercomputer assists existing research project

Douglas's work is part of UW's research efforts with the CI-WATER project, which is funded with an EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement Program (RII) Track-2 cooperative agreement that focuses on the hydrology of the Colorado River Basin.

The CI-WATER project is a joint collaboration among UW, the University of Utah, Utah State University and Brigham Young University. Cooperators include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NCAR. EPSCoR Track-2 cooperative agreements, distributed through the National Science Foundation, are designed to provide research funding to states, including Wyoming, that typically receive lesser amounts of NSF research and development funding.

The CI-WATER project will develop a high-resolution, physics-based hydrologic model that is applicable over large areas to help assess long-term impacts of water resources management decisions, natural and man-made land-use changes, and climate variability -- with an emphasis on the Rocky Mountain west region.

"As population goes up in the region, we can see what water resources are being drawn," Douglas says.

The NWSC is the result of a partnership among the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR); the University of Wyoming; the state of Wyoming; Cheyenne LEADS; the Wyoming Business Council; Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power; and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. NCAR is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NWSC will contain some of the world's most powerful supercomputers (1.5 petaflops, which is equal to 1.5 quadrillion computer operations per second) dedicated to improving scientific understanding of climate change, severe weather, air quality and other vital atmospheric science and geo-science topics. The center also will house a premier data storage (11 petabytes) and archival facility that holds irreplaceable historical climate records and other information.

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