The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the southwestern United States, providing tap water for 40 million people across seven states and Mexico, and irrigating 2.6 million acres of farmland.
But as climate change reduces water flows in the river and a century-old water rights agreement strains under unsustainable allocations, the region is headed for a major crisis. With no easy solutions in sight, policymakers find themselves in a political cauldron of competing interests and painful tradeoffs.
Now, public policy scholars at the University of California, Riverside have created an innovative new tool to bring clarity to this complex situation — a hydro-economic model that can analyze the future impacts of potential changes in water use throughout the Colorado River Basin. The model is the result of a collaboration between UCR’s School of Public Policy and the Utah Rivers Council.
As described in a working paper published by UCR, the model can assess hypothetical scenarios like diverting more water from agriculture to growing city populations. It would quantify the benefits to cities in increased supplies, while also detailing the impacts to farmers through reduced planted acreage and switches to more efficient irrigation methods.
The model can also evaluate the effects of bypassing Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona to maintain adequate flows for electricity generation at Hoover Dam. It would calculate the megawatt hours of renewable hydropower production lost and the resulting economic costs to the region.
Perhaps most importantly, the model can objectively weigh the tradeoffs of maintaining current water allotments for wetlands and wildlife habitats versus providing more supply for municipal and agricultural needs. It allows for a thorough examination of the costs and benefits of bold new policy solutions, including modifying the rigid parameters of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
According to Ariel Dinar, a distinguished professor at UCR’s School of Public Policy and one of the leading developers of the model, “Nobody wants even to think about changing the parameters of the 1922 treaty. A model like what we developed will allow us to check different options under different scenarios of climate change, and there may be some very reasonable solutions.”
The model enables rapid assessment of increasing efficiency measures like drip irrigation, water-wise urban landscaping, or moving canals underground. “The vision was from the beginning to put a big picture together,” said UCR assistant professor Mehdi Nemati, who collaborated on the project. “This becomes complex, but at the same time, we want to see the relative costs and benefits as we go from here to there, rather than just focusing on one specific region.”
UCR plans to make the model publicly available online in early 2024 after soliciting input from water agencies, agricultural interests, municipalities, Native American tribes, and other stakeholders. The researchers believe it will then become an invaluable tool for developing innovative, flexible policies to handle declining water supplies.
“We have to understand that we have a future with climate change and population growth on our heels with deep uncertainties,” said UCR postdoctoral scholar Daniel Crespo, the lead author of the working paper. “We must provide information about policies that are robust, flexible, and strong, and they have a capacity to provide resiliency to the system.”
With the Colorado River crisis looming, UCR’s revolutionary hydro-economic model could not have emerged at a more crucial time. It brings hope that through objective analysis and creative thinking, the region can find its way to a secure and sustainable water future.
Cover photo courtesy of: Jan Buchholtz