Upper Colorado River Basin Flows and Paleohydrology Jenny Ta

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1 Upper Colorado River Basin Flows and Paleohydrology Jenny Ta Introduction The Colorado River flows from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, through seven U.S. and two Mexican states into the Colorado River Delta in the Gulf of California. Through this vast extent, this river serves as a critical source of water for the growing population in the southwest, as well as supports freshwater ecosystems and threatened taxa such as the humpback chub as it traverses through arid desert regions. Therefore, there is significant interest in quantifying its historic and potential future flows to inform natural resource management in the basin. The goal of this paper is to summarize studies on the historic flow of the upper Colorado River. A brief overview of climate in the basin is followed by information on the observed streamflow data at Lees Ferry. Paleohydrological studies that extend the observed stream flow record further into the past are reviewed, followed by a brief overview of recent projections of climate change effects on soil moisture in the region. Colorado River Basin Present Climate A discussion of streamflow is best preceded by a brief overview of the climate system since it is the driving factor in water availability in the watershed. Moisture in the Colorado River basin comes from different types of precipitation systems (figure 1). Winter and spring frontal systems from the north Pacific bring in most of the moisture, contributing to snowpacks in its Rocky Mountain headwaters. Moisture is also brought in from the tropical Pacific through warm winter storms. These systems bring rain on snow, leading to high runoff and flooding. Finally, summer monsoons bring in moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in convective thunderstorms in the southern Colorado Plateau (Webb, Hereford, & McCabe, 2004). The summer monsoon, also known as the Mexican Monsoon, has its northwestern extent between the northern and southern Colorado Plateau (figure 2). Regions northwest of this belt have climate dominated by predictable cool season precipitation. Areas to the southeast experience summer thunderstorms, and regions within and near the belt exhibit a bimodal precipitation regime. Flow patterns of the Colorado River tributaries reflect these climatic drivers. For example, the Paria and Little Colorado Rivers, whose watersheds fall within the monsoon influence exhibit summer and early fall floods. In contrast, the Green and Yampa Rivers, which lie north of the monsoon extent, do not have summer and fall floods (Scott, Reynolds, Brasher, Caires, & Miller, 2005). These climate patterns drive moisture supply in the Colorado River watershed and control the amount of water availability in the Colorado River. Observed Streamflow in Upper Colorado River Basin The United States Geological Survey (USGS) operates and maintains a series of stream gauge stations along the Colorado River. The Lees Ferry stream gauge (USGS station ID ) lies at the boundary of the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins, thereby measuring the amount of water that flows between these two basins. This stream gauge is of particular interest to water resource managers because the 1922 Colorado River Compact used estimated flows from this gauge to negotiate the 16.5 million acre-feet (MAF) allocated to the basin states ECL March 11, 2015

2 Figure 1. Key moisture sources to the Colorado River basin (USGS Fact Sheet ). Figure 2. Extent (grey) of summer monsoon in the Colorado Plateau illustrating the band of areas that experience bimodal precipitation patterns, which include the Grand Canyon (GRCA) (Scott, Reynolds, Brasher, Caires, & Miller). ECL March 11, 2015

3 divided into upper and lower basins ("The Law of the River: The Colorado River Compact of 1922," 2015). The Upper Colorado River Basin comprises the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and the Lower Colorado River Basin includes Nevada, Arizona, and California. The Lees Ferry stream gauge was established in 1921 for the purpose of negotiating the Colorado River Compact and has been maintained ever since. Its official flow records extend back to 1906 through the use of nearby stream gauges available during the 1906 to 1921 period. A time series plot of the observed naturalized streamflow (figure 3) from 1906 to 2004 show a cumulative average annual flow that declines from 17 MAF (1906 to 1930 average) down to 15 MAF (1906 to 2004 average). The Lees Ferry stream gauge also shows that the 2000 to 2004 multi-year drought is the severest on record with a five year annual flow average of 9.6 MAF ("The Lees Ferry gaged flow record," 2015). Figure 3. Lees Ferry naturalized stream flow from 1906 to (treeflow.com) Paleohydrology Generally, historic stream gauge data can be analyzed to look at trends in streamflow. While historic stream gauge data can date back to one hundred years, this limited amount of time does not provide the full range of variability in flow. For this reason, paleohydrologic reconstructions of streamflow that go back to five hundred to one thousand years are used to obtain a larger sample of flow variability in a system (Lukas, Wade, & Rajagopalan, 2012). Tree-ring streamflow reconstruction, also known as dendrohydrology, is based on the fact that the width of annual growth rings in wood serve as a proxy for streamflow because they are both controlled by the same climatic factors of precipitation and evapotranspiration ("Tree-Ring Background Information," 2015). The process involves the collection of core samples from both living and dead trees. These samples are analyzed and cross-dated so that each ring corresponds to an exact year. With this information, core samples of trees in the same area can be aligned into a series that goes back in time further than the life span of the trees. This data is ECL March 11, 2015

4 used to form a chronology that can be calibrated with multiple linear regression or other statistical methods with observed naturalized streamflow to create a reconstruction model. In 1976, Stockton and Jacoby created one of the first tree-ring streamflow reconstructions of the Colorado River and found that there was a mega-drought in the late 16th century (Stockton & Jacoby, 1976). Then in 2006, Woodhouse et al. created an updated streamflow reconstruction used updated tree chronologies and a longer observed natural streamflow record for the calibration process (Woodhouse, Gray, & Meko, 2006)(figure 4). Woodhouse s updated reconstruction confirmed the late 16th century mega-drought. It also confirmed that the 1922 Colorado River Compact was negotiated with data during a wet period in the paleohydrologic record. Figure 4. Reconstructed 20-year running means of streamflow at Lees Ferry stream gauge. Lees-A,B,C, and D correspond to different reconstruction models using different number of predictors and statistical methods. (Woodhouse, 2006) Figure 5. Streamflow reconstruction showing Medieval Drought. Y-axis flows corresponds to percent of mean flow during observed period (Meko et al., 2007). ECL March 11, 2015

5 Using another updated chronology, (Meko et al., 2007) created a reconstruction that dates back to 800 CE (figure 5). This study found that the period around AD 1100 was a time of multiple decadal scale droughts with a particularly severe drought in the mid-1100s. This period from AD 1100 to 1200 has been called the Medieval Drought and has been corroborated with archeological evidence theorizing the collapse of Ancestral Pueblo civilization in the southwest during this time (Ingram & Malamud-Roam, 2013). Results of streamflow reconstruction models vary depending on a variety of factors. Some of these factors are the trees used to construct the chronologies, the length and quality of observed naturalized flows used in calibration and validation, and the statistical methods used in the process of construction the models. A comparison of different reconstruction model shows that long-term means range from 13.2 to 14.7 MAF which is still substantially less than the 16.5 MAF allocated flows (Woodhouse et al., 2006). Based on these paleoclimate records, the Colorado River flows have had past periods of flows considerably lower than the Lees Ferry gauged record. These streamflow reconstructions give an indication of past variability which can be superimposed on global climate model predictions to give water managers a sense of worse case scenarios. Climate Change Effects A recent study linking paleohydrologic records to general circulation models (GCM) with evapotranspiration models found that severe drought risk in the southwest United States in the late 21st century would be likely (Cook, Ault, & Smerdon, 2015). Figure 6 is a graph of modeled summer season moisture balance in the Southwest United States. The moisture balance indices corresponds to the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) in which a value of 0 means average moisture referenced to a baseline, negative values mean drier conditions, and positive values are wetter conditions. The GCM in the study uses a RCP 8.5 corresponding to a business as usual high-emission scenario. This study concludes that the future drought risk is likely to exceed the driest centuries of 1100 to 1300 CE. moisture balance Figure 6. Summer season moisture balance modeled for with a RCP 8.5 ECL March 11, 2015

6 Conclusions The observed streamflow record at Lees Ferry provides over one hundred years of data indicating a trend of decreasing annual flow from the Upper Colorado River Basin. However, this dataset is not long enough to encompass the full range of variability in the system. A number of tree-ring streamflow reconstructions have been able to extend the flow record as far back as 800 C.E. These models not only confirm that the 20th century was a particularly wet period, but that past droughts in the 16th and 12th centuries have been much more severe and longer lasting than in the observed streamflow record. Furthermore, general climate projections for the southwest indicate warmer temperatures and drier conditions, with severe drought conditions likely for the late 21st century. In a watershed that is over allocated due to negotiations for the 1922 Colorado Compact based on a wet period, with growing water demands for an increasing population as well as management for conservation of freshwater ecosystems in the region, water resource managers are faced with the challenges of balancing these competing water needs in a future that will likely have scarcer water resources. ECL March 11, 2015

7 Bibliography Cook, B. I., Ault, T. R., & Smerdon, J. E. (2015). Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains. Sci. Adv., 1(1). doi: /sciadv Ingram, L., & Malamud-Roam, F. (2013). The West without Water: What past floods, droughts, and other climatic clues tell us about tomorrow. London, England: University of California Press. The Law of the River: The Colorado River Compact of (2015). Retrieved March 1, 2015, 2015, from The Lees Ferry gaged flow record. (2015). Retrieved March 2, 2015, from lees/gage.html Lukas, J. J., Wade, L., & Rajagopalan, B. (2012). Paleohydrology of the Lower Colorado River Basin and Implications for Water Supply Availability: Colorado Water Institute, Colorado State University. Meko, D. M., Woodhouse, C. A., Baisan, C. A., Knight, T., Lukas, J. J., Hughes, M. K., & Salzer, M. W. (2007). Medieval drought in the upper Colorado River Basin. Geophysical Research Letters, 34(10). doi: /2007gl Scott, M. L., Reynolds, E. W., Brasher, A. M. D., Caires, A., & Miller, M. E. (2005). The Structure and Functioning of Riparian and Aquatic Ecosystems of the Colorado Plateau - Conceptual Models to Inform Monitoring. Retrieved from im/monitor/docs/scottm_etal_2005_riparian_models.pdf. Stockton, C. W., & Jacoby, G. C. (1976). Long-term surface-water supply and streamflow trends in the Upper Colorado River Basin based on tree-ring analysis. Lake Powell Research Project Bulletin, 18, Tree-Ring Background Information. (2015). Retrieved March 1, 2015, 2015, from treeflow.info/background.html Webb, R. H., Hereford, R., & McCabe, G. J. (2004). Climatic Fluctuations, Drought, and Flow in the Colorado River Basin. (USGS Fact Sheet 3062). Woodhouse, C. A., Gray, S. T., & Meko, D. M. (2006). Updated streamflow reconstructions for the Upper Colorado River Basin. Water Resources Research, 42(5), n/a-n/a. doi: /2005wr ECL March 11, 2015

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