UW Ruckelshaus Institute Report Assesses Future of Water with Climate Change

January 26, 2010
Cover of water resource report
Climate change's impacts on water resources are discussed in a new publication by the University of Wyoming's Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources.

The threat of drought and the potential impacts of climate change make the management of Wyoming's water resources more important than ever, concludes a report by University of Wyoming scientists.

The Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) produced the 28-page report, "Assessing the Future of Wyoming's Water Resources: Adding Climate Change to the Equation," as a basis for management strategies. Written for a broad audience, the brochure-type publication includes easy-to-read text, color graphics and sidebars. It is available on the Ruckelshaus Institute Web site at www.uwyo.edu/enr. Copies may also be requested by emailing ienr@uwyo.edu.

"This report covers what we know and what we wish we knew about Wyoming and the West's changing climate and the various impacts on water resources," says Wyoming State Climatologist Steve Gray, the lead author and director of the Water Resources Data System at UW. "What we do know is that Wyoming's water resources are highly sensitive to climate change. This is because Wyoming is a relatively dry state, a headwaters state, and because we are so reliant on mountain snow, the main source of surface water for the entire year."

Gray explains that downstream states are somewhat buffered from the types of drought seen in the historical record: Dryness in one area can often be offset by wet conditions in another. In many cases, through compacts and decrees, water is stored upstream for these states.

"Recognizing the importance of collaborative research and knowledge, the institute and its faculty partners have tackled this issue head on, and we hope this effort will lead to additional research and information," says Indy Burke, director of the university's ENR program. "Wyoming has taken several steps to better address drought and water demands. This includes the university's state and federal partnerships in watershed planning and ongoing monitoring of water quality and drought assessments across the state."

The research compiled for the report, reviewed by members of the Ruckelshaus Institute Board, presents the latest scientific evidence that, as the Rocky Mountain region continues to grow, water in the West will become even more limited. This growth, combined with climate change, could significantly influence water availability in Wyoming and downstream states.

"The drought conditions that have occurred during the last several years in the Western United States, particularly in Wyoming, have provided academia, agriculture, industry and tribes the impetus to manage water and watersheds more efficiently," says Gary Collins, member of the Ruckelshaus Institute Board and tribal liaison for the Northern Arapaho Tribe and the state of Wyoming. "The greater demand for water by growing populations and energy development will require all entities to work compatibly to sustain an accepted quality of life for all."

The UW report concludes that "there is mounting evidence that the Earth is experiencing a warming trend," and, as a result, "any increase in temperature will increase the impact of drought just as population growth and other factors have greatly increased the West's vulnerability to water shortages."

Graphs and figures in the report illustrate datasets on past climates, including tree-ring studies in which scientists look at the widths of annual growth rings in trees to reconstruct a detailed history of ancient droughts. Based on these and other data, scientists can then create scenarios that enable them to examine how future climate change might influence water resources.

"If the dry periods of the 1700s were to return, there would be substantial consequences, and this makes climate change of any type a key factor to consider as we plan for the future of Wyoming's water resources," Gray says.

The report indicates that through investments in water research and monitoring, and better consideration of climate impacts on water resources, Wyoming and other western states can continue to support industry and agriculture, while also conserving enough water to ensure the health of nature's supporting systems.

The report also covers emerging issues such as the interactions between drought and pine beetle impacts on forests and watersheds, produced water from energy development, and water economics.

"When it comes to our western water resources, there is no slack in the system," says Gray. "Managing for the combined effects of drought and warmer temperatures will be a key challenge in the future."

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