Nearly tapped out: UW team wins $20M grant to study climate-driven changes to water supply

LARAMIE — As a prolonged Western drought hits new historic levels almost daily, a team of University of Wyoming scientists has been awarded $20 million to study the crisis at the community level with an eye on evolving solutions. 

The five-year grant from the National Science Foundation will fund field work and high-performance computing for researchers to quantify how a changing climate in one of the nation’s key headwater regions, said David Williams, a professor in the UW Department of Botany in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Williams is the lead scientist for the project, which will take a trickle-down approach to managing Wyoming’s and the U.S. West’s drastically changing water resources. 

“The water we have available to use, fresh water, comes to us in the wintertime as snow, so all of the Western United States gets its water from snowpack,” he said. 

With shrinking snowpack levels and a warming climate that promises to be a continuing trend, an important part of dealing with drought and water shortages will be how communities adapt their approaches to water management, Williams said. 

“It’s not just us in Wyoming. This is the same set of issues across the entire West,” he said. “A lot of rural communities depend on water for agriculture and tourism. These little impacts (to available water) propagate, and they transmit downstream. Then, there are broader impacts across the entire region.” 

Taking a scientific approach to the drought problem that includes socioeconomic impacts could set a baseline for communities to implement change, he said. 

“Our goal is not to try and persuade people to think a certain way,” Williams said. “Our goal is to get all the (stakeholders) a place in the process and learn about what it means to have a long-term drought and … how that affects local communities. That stuff goes beyond politics.” 

Not only is Wyoming expected to enter another dry, drought-dominated summer, it also is an important piece of the water puzzle for the U.S. West. 

The snowpack from the Cowboy State is a key contributor to the Colorado River Basin, which provides water and electricity to tens of millions in seven Western states. It runs nearly 1,500 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez across the Mexico/ California border. 

Overall, an estimated 40 million people depend on Colorado River water for power, and it irrigates about 5 million acres of agricultural land. That includes supplying water for Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the United States. 

Both have been depleted to dangerous levels over the past years, prompting emergency action from the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The situation has become so concerning it has spurred mainstream use of the term “dead pool” when referring to the precariously low levels of Mead and Powell. 

Dead pool refers to the minimum level of water needed to continue flowing downriver from a reservoir.

As of April 30, Lake Powell was at a level of 3,523 feet, its lowest since it was filled in 1963. The lake’s dead pool number is 3,370 feet. 

Lake Mead was at 1,055 feet as of April 30, with a dead pool threshold of 895 feet. 

Because of the dire situation of these large reservoirs, the Bureau of Reclamation has issued a raft of emergency orders to keep them from reaching a dead pool state. 

One that impacts Wyoming is releasing an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water from the Flaming Gorge Dam on the Wyoming-Utah border to bolster Lake Powell. 

While reports of drought, water shortages and potential for power interruptions are frightening, considering how climate change is impacting those conditions is a crucial tool in developing new habits to adapt to them, said Brent Ewers, director of the UW Biodiversity Institute, project director for EPSCoR (a research stimulation initiative) and a member of the study team. 

“The big goal is to take what we understand about how the climate is going to change, which is probably going to be a continuous increase in temperature,” he said. “But precipitation is probably going to be about the same. What that’s going to mean is we’re going to have less snow.” 

And that, he said, is the rub. 

Less snow means less runoff, and it also means smaller snowpacks that melt faster. Those factors combine for more evaporation and less water soaking into thirsty lands downhill. It also means the snowpack won’t last as long, leading to a more prolonged, drier summer season. 

“Even if we take the exact same amount of water, that’s not going to penetrate as much as snowmelt will,” he said of more rain and less snow. “The best situation is having a big snowpack that melts out late.” 

The factors of climate change, which include higher temperatures, “completely changes the kind of water cycle we have in Wyoming, and we need to help communities anticipate and adapt to that,” Ewers said. 

To that end, the $20 million UW project, officially called Wyoming Anticipating Climate Transitions (WY-ACT), will be hyper-focused on the community level, and not just the ecological impacts of drought. 

“We want to work directly with the stakeholders, and we want to work with them so they see the data we use and, more importantly, the models we use,” Ewers said. 

The team also wants to take a pure science approach that shows data on a level that’s not political or gets involved in social arguments about climate change. 

“We use very fundamental principles of science,” Ewers said. “The same thing we used to understand how airplanes fly or how gas works, these are the same principles and fundamentals of physics.” 

It’s important for communities to be involved, because they’ll feel the impacts of not only a changing water resource, but how that impacts an area’s economy and way of life, he said. 

For example, the Laramie Range is already on the edge of seeing a shrinking of its snowpack, Ewers said. That will affect more than just agriculture. 

“I’ve seen the difference in the 20 years I’ve been here,” he said. “The quality of snow is less than when I first got here. The ability to ski at Happy Jack is going to be (affected). It’ll start to look more like the edges of the lower part of the forest. You’ll get more of that than the closed forest.” 

The socioeconomic part of the WY-ACT team is what the National Science Foundation found unique in its proposal, said Corrie Knapp, another member of the UW effort. 

“These issues about water are going to affect all of us, and we’re really hoping this (study) helps all sectors of Wyoming to prepare for changes,” she said. “And the changes are already evident. We’re seeing a big shift in precipitation from falling snow … and an increase in the frequency and intensity of drought.” 

Industries like agriculture and outdoors recreation can be leaders in adjusting to the changes happening now and for those to come, said Knapp, who is an assistant professor at the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. 

“We really see the possibilities of being proactive … and how we can prepare,” she said. 

The political debate over climate change is something the team is “definitely aware of,” Knapp said. “With my research, I’ve worked in really conservative areas … and everyone is concerned about the impacts (of drought) and how it can impact their livelihoods and bottom line. If we can figure out how to avoid those impacts, that’s something we can really rally around.” 

Wyoming has a responsibility and opportunity to impact water management beyond its borders, Knapp said. Because it’s a headwaters state, decisions and actions here will have importance at every stop downstream. 

“What we do in Wyoming and how we respond to water will have cascading implications for (states) downstream,” she said. “We have to be aware of how our actions impact other people, but we have a real opportunity here to be a real leader in understanding water systems and how they impact climate change.” 

That’s one of the things UW President Ed Seidel said is exciting for the university and state. 

“This project … will establish new, innovative capacity in Wyoming to address the ecological and socioeconomic consequences of climate-driven changes to the water supply,” he said. “And it will establish Wyoming as a key player in climate change research and integrated Earth system modeling.” 

Beyond just feeding the Colorado River Basin, the climate effects on Wyoming’s water are being felt across the state, UW reports.

“The warming climate, reflected for years in the decline of glaciers in the Wind River Mountains and the Tetons, is projected to result in reduced wintertime snowpack, earlier snowmelt, and sharp declines in soil moisture, stream flows and water shortage,” according to a UW press release announcing the $20 million grant. “This compounds the risk of large-scale forest die offs, wildfires and other ecological imbalances.” Although states have fought for decades over access to and volumes of water from the Colorado River Basin and other Wyoming sources, the WY-ACT approach promises to create a broad appeal to spur participation, Williams said. 

“It hits their bottom line,” he said. “This is way outside the broader national dialogue about climate change.”