DOE Announces Climate Observatory on Drought-Stricken Colorado River

Image: John Bilberry, Los Alamos National Laboratory

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Just over a week after the federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River, which supplies 40 million people with water, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) announced Tuesday that it would be opening a new climate observatory at the river’s headwaters. The project’s scientists hope to predict rain and snowfall in the U.S. West and help state water managers avoid further water usage cuts.

Why This Matters: The West is facing a “mega drought” covering the largest area ever reported by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Forty million people rely on the Colorado River for their water, and as heatwaves and wildfires bombard the region, water demand is on the rise. Still, states with water treaties and agreements may struggle to balance them with water usage cuts. Meanwhile, people of color will be particularly impacted, with allegations of environmental racism cropping up among California’s recently declared water supply alert. Officials say that adapting to shifting water systems offers while rapidly cutting emissions provides the most direct path to water relief; the DoE’s new observatory intends to help states do just that.

Searching the Skies: The new Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory will be operated by a team of scientists from the federal government and universities to collect data on precipitation, wind, clouds, tiny particles, humidity, soil moisture, and more. This information will help them predict rain and snowfall and how much will flow into the Colorado River. They also hope to explore how wildfires, forest management, drought, and tree-killing bugs impact the region’s water systems. “We have to think about the land and the atmosphere as a linked system that interact with each other,” said Alejandro Flores, an associate professor of hydrology at Boise State University. “Up until now, there have been a lack of observations that help us understand this critical interface.”

Ken Williams, the lead on-site researcher and Berkeley Lab scientist says that one key aspect of water supply is soil moisture content and that when rainfall is sparse, the soil soaks up water before it can reach streams and rivers. Although parts of Arizona and New Mexico have seen above-average Monsoon seasons this year, Mike Crimmins, a professor at the University of Arizona, says it won’t be enough to counteract the scale of the current drought. “We have both really wet conditions for the short term, but we also have longer-term drought still hanging out there because we have these longer-term deficits that we cannot solve with just one or two or even three months of precipitation,” he said. 

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