Wyoming Vulnerable to Water Scarcity as Planet Warms


LARAMIE, Wyoming, January 26, 2010 (ENS) – Wyoming’s water resources are vulnerable to climate change because Wyoming is a dry state, a headwaters state, and a state that relies on mountain snow as its main source of surface water, concludes a report by University of Wyoming scientists released today.

The Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources produced the report, “Assessing the Future of Wyoming’s Water Resources: Adding Climate Change to the Equation,” as a basis for water management strategies.

“This report covers what we know and what we wish we knew about Wyoming and the West’s changing climate and the various impacts on water resources,” says Wyoming State Climatologist Steve Gray, the lead author and director of the Water Resources Data System at University of Wyoming.

“There is mounting evidence that the Earth is experiencing a warming trend,” and, as a result, “any increase in temperature will increase the impact of drought just as population growth and other factors have greatly increased the West’s vulnerability to water shortages,” the report warns.

Gray explains that downstream states are buffered from the types of drought seen in Wyoming because dryness in one area can be offset by wet conditions in another. In many cases, through compacts and decrees, water is stored upstream for these states.

But Wyoming is more exposed to drought and the potential impacts of climate change for three reasons, the report states.

First, Wyoming is the fifth driest state in the United States. More than 70 percent of the state receives less than 16 inches of precipitation on average each year. Though technically speaking, much of Wyoming does not qualify as true desert, it is a dry state by any measure.

North Platte River at Eagles Nest, Wyoming (Photo by Marek Uliasz)

Second, the majority of snowpack in Wyoming is concentrated in a relatively small area that is responsible for the majority of Wyoming’s runoff and surface water supplies. Any events such as changes in climate, vegetation change, fires, or insect outbreaks that impact these mountain watersheds will have major consequences for all of Wyoming’s water users, and for water users far downstream.

Finally, Wyoming is a headwaters state for some of the largest river systems in North America, including the Snake-Columbia, Green-Colorado, Yellowstone-Missouri, and Platte Rivers. This puts Wyoming at a disadvantage when faced with many scenarios for climatic, economic, and demographic change, according to the report.

“The drought conditions that have occurred during the last several years in the Western United States, particularly in Wyoming, have provided academia, agriculture, industry and tribes the impetus to manage water and watersheds more efficiently,” says Gary Collins, a member of the Ruckelshaus Institute Board and tribal liaison for the Northern Arapaho Tribe and the state of Wyoming.

“The greater demand for water by growing populations and energy development will require all entities to work compatibly to sustain an accepted quality of life for all,” Collins said.

The Rocky Mountain West is the fastest-growing region in the country, the report points out particularly in the “persistently water limited Colorado River Basin.”

Six of the 10 fastest growing states and many of the fastest growing U.S. cities are located within the basin according to 2007 U.S. Census Bureau data. The Colorado River itself is already the primary water supply for 27 million people in seven U.S. states, plus two states in Mexico and dozens of Native American tribes.

Projections suggest that the Colorado River Basin may be home to almost 40 million people by 2020.

Today, relatively few Western river systems have any water available for new uses, the report states. In Wyoming’s North Platte Basin, for example, every drop of water has been legally allocated.

Multiple factors have led to the over-allocation of Colorado River water, and several downstream states have historically used more than their legal share. As a result, water to support development in much of the West must come from alternate sources such as groundwater, transbasin diversions, or more often, from existing uses.

“Recognizing the importance of collaborative research and knowledge, the institute and its faculty partners have tackled this issue head on, and we hope this effort will lead to additional research and information,” says Indy Burke, director of the university’s Environment and Natural Resources program.

“Wyoming has taken several steps to better address drought and water demands,” says Burke. “This includes the university’s state and federal partnerships in watershed planning and ongoing monitoring of water quality and drought assessments across the state.”

The institute hopes to attract a broad audience with the brochure-type publication, which features easy-to-read text, color graphics and sidebars. Click here to view the report on the Ruckelshaus Institute website.

The institute was named in 2002 after William D. Ruckelshaus, who in 1970 became the first head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administration of President Richard Nixon.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.

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