ASU gets NASA grant to better understand the future of Colorado River Drought

Researchers from multiple study backgrounds from Arizona State University have landed a $1 million grant from NASA’s Earth Science division to study and provide long-term scenarios and solutions for better water management for the Colorado River Basin.

Arizona’s Colorado River Basin has been in news recently as a bipartisan effort from Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democratic U.S. Representative Raul M. Grijalva helped get a historic drought plan approved by Congress last month. The seven state agreement, which also features support from Mexico, is a step in the right direction to address the river’s water supplies that are seeing major issues with drainage and drought.

Arizona depends on the Colorado River Basin as the drainage area of the river supplies the majority of the state’s current renewable water. With major drought taking place and the future of water flow to the rest of the state hanging in the balance, leaders are looking at options to solve the looming crisis.

With the grant, the interdisciplinary team of researchers will evaluate climate changes as well as land-use changes and how they impact the Basin area. The main reason NASA is involved is because data collection for the study will revolve around satellites that observe overhead. Plus, ground data from the U.S. Geographical Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all have a hand in the research. ASU has partnered up with the Central Arizona Project (CAP) for the research project.

“The main goals of this research are to produce projections of river flow in the Colorado River Basin through year 2100 that both draw from recent advances in remote sensing and modeling to produce greater accuracy than previous studies; and account for potential future changes in water demand,” said Dr. Theodore Bohn, research scientist for Hydrologic Science, Engineering & Sustainability.

According to Bohn, project researchers will work with stakeholders, such as planners, water managers, and other decision-makers, to ensure that potential future scenarios, and the projections derived from them, are credible and relevant to their needs.

The investigation will draw on remote sensing observations, climate model projections, land use projections, and hydrologic modeling. NASA representatives will evaluate the project’s progress on a quarterly basis through project reports and investigator meetings. NASA will also facilitate the dissemination of results to the community via funding travel to scientific conferences and publishing of results in academic journals and other media outlets.

The river supplies more than 40 million people with renewable water throughout nine states as well as 22 Native American nations, and 22 national parks and refuges, and irrigates 5.5 million acres. The three-year research project will focus on advancing the use of satellite observations and hydrologic modeling to monitor and take rundowns of local and regional water quality and quantity for improving decisions around water management in the future.

“There are some pressing issues arising from drought in the Colorado River including the looming specter of the loss of CAP water supplies as Lakes Powell and Mead near critical levels,” Bohn said. “Plus, the projected future population growth in Arizona, with accompanying increases in water demand, is an issue. And the projected future warming over the entire Colorado Basin, resulting in smaller mountain snow packs that melt earlier in the year and greater evaporative losses from the landscape causing declines in river flows is cause for concern.”

Nick Esquer

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