Trends in Recent Historical and Projected Climate Data for the Colorado River Basin and Potential Effects on Groundwater Availability

Scientific Investigations Report 2020-5107
Prepared in cooperation with Bureau of Reclamation
By: , and 

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Abstract

Understanding recent historical and projected trends in precipitation and temperature in the Colorado River Basin, and estimating what the projected changes in these climate parameters may mean for groundwater resources in the region, is important for water managers and policymakers to sustainably manage water resources in the basin. Historical (1896–2019) precipitation and temperature data for the upper and lower Colorado River Basins were analyzed to better understand recent trends in climate data that may affect groundwater resources in the area. Historical data indicate multidecadal-scale cyclical patterns in precipitation in both the upper and lower basins. Although upper basin precipitation had no statistical trend over the recent historical period, the lower basin had a weak negative trend over this period. Multidecadal-scale cyclical patterns in temperature also are observed in historical climate data in both the upper and lower basins, at least until the early 1970s. Beginning at that time, both the upper and lower basins experienced strong, monotonic positive trends in temperature. Basic principles of hydrology indicate that periods of decreasing precipitation as well as increasing temperature would have a negative effect, that is, reduction in groundwater infiltration and hence, reduced recharge of aquifer systems.

Projected climate data from 97 Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 5 (CMIP5) ensemble members across the full range of Representative Concentration Pathway (RCPs) from water years 1951 through 2099 were evaluated to understand what current global climate models are projecting about future conditions in the Colorado River Basin, and what this might mean for groundwater systems in the region. Precipitation in the upper basin is projected to increase throughout the rest of the century, rising to 6 percent above the 1951–2015 historical period by mid-century and to 9 percent above the historical period by the end of the century. Temperature in the upper basin also is projected to be above the recent historical median throughout the rest of the century, with steady warming in decadal average temperatures expected until the last quarter of this century. In contrast to projected precipitation in the upper basin, precipitation in the lower basin is projected to be the same as, or slightly less than, the historical period throughout most of the rest of this century. Like projected temperature in the upper basin, temperature in the lower basin also is projected to be above the recent historical median throughout the rest of the century. Comparing median projections for all future decades with median results from all historical decades, future precipitation is expected to be greater than that of the past in the upper basin, though no significant difference is projected for precipitation in the lower basin. Significant increases (p-value<0.05) are expected in temperature in both the upper and lower basins.

To estimate the effects of projected precipitation and temperature on groundwater systems in the region, results from the 97 member CMIP5 climate projection ensemble were used as input in a Soil-Water Balance (SWB) groundwater infiltration model for the Colorado River Basin. SWB simulation results indicate that the upper Colorado River Basin is expected to experience decades of above-historical-average groundwater infiltration through the end of the century. For the lower Colorado River Basin, simulated groundwater infiltration is projected to be consistently less than the recent (1951–2015) historical period for most of the remaining century. A comparison of the distribution of all median simulated groundwater infiltration results between recent historical and future periods indicates projected groundwater infiltration in the upper basin is significantly (p-value<0.05) greater over the combined 2020–2099 future period than the recent (1951–2015) historical period. Moreover, in 41 of 71 (58 percent) possible future decades in this century, groundwater infiltration is projected to be greater than the 75th percentile of historical simulated groundwater infiltration. Projected groundwater infiltration in the lower Colorado River Basin across all future decades is significantly less than in the historical period. Of the 71 future decades in the century, projected groundwater infiltration in the lower basin is expected to be less than the 25th percentile of historical infiltration in 55 (77 percent) of the 10-year periods. Important differences in projected precipitation between the upper (increasing precipitation) and lower (decreasing precipitation) basins largely drive the different responses of simulated groundwater infiltration in the upper (increasing infiltration) and lower (decreasing infiltration) basins. It will be useful to revisit projections in groundwater infiltration in the Colorado River Basin when more up-to-date projections of precipitation become available from the next Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phases or by using climate input developments through Regional Climate Modeling efforts and stochastic weather generators.

Suggested Citation

Tillman, F.D., Gangopadhyay, S., and Pruitt, T., 2020, Trends in recent historical and projected climate data for the Colorado River Basin and potential effects on groundwater availability: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2020–5107, 24 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20205107.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Data and Methods
  • Analyses of Recent Historical Climate Data for the Colorado River Basin
  • Analyses of Projected Climate Data for the Colorado River Basin
  • Projected Groundwater Infiltration for the Colorado River Basin
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Computational Details and Limitations of the Soil-Water Balance Groundwater Infiltration Model

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Trends in recent historical and projected climate data for the Colorado River Basin and potential effects on groundwater availability
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2020-5107
DOI 10.3133/sir20205107
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Arizona Water Science Center
Description Report: vii, 24 p.; 2 Data Releases
Country Mexico, United States
State Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming
Other Geospatial Colorado River basin
Online Only (Y/N) Y
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