Drought Interfaces

Water in the American West sits at the interface of complex natural forces and political interests. Legal, economic, cultural, and ecological systems all converge around water. StudyTank, the research arm of the Wright-Ingraham Institute, initially posed the question What is Drought? The inquiry that followed focused on key interfaces in the Colorado River Basin: between drought and water rights, and between drought and climate change. The Colorado River Basin includes seven states and approximately 40 million people. As climate change, drought, and aridification impact the basin and stakeholders, existing systems will also be transformed. How can we better imagine and model futures for water resources in the American west?

Visualizing Drought
To imagine the futures of water, civilization, and ecology in the Colorado River basin, we have developed a visualization app that shows how the Colorado River interacts with these complex systems. Using actual stream flow data, eco-regions, population distribution, and tribal lands, the model visually reveals the complex relationships in this region.
Launch
Application only available
in Desktop Browsers
PREMISE
The problem

The problems associated with drought are best stated in two questions:

  • 1. How has the 20-year drought in the southwestern United States affected historical and current water rights, allocations, and consumptive use?

  • 2. Within the context of climate change, what new approaches, tools, and resources are needed to assist in the use and management of complex water systems?
COLORADO river Basin
The Colorado River Basin is approximately 250,000 square miles that crosses through seven states and ends in Mexico. In 1922, the Basin was divided into the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin, which enabled widespread irrigation and urbanization in the Southwestern United States.
law of the river

The Colorado River Compact (1922), the first federal legislative allocation of water rights in the American West, still prevails over surface water rights in the Colorado River Basin. Allocations of these rights were based on “seniority of beneficial use” - the earlier users have seniority over later users, and their use must have clear and tangible benefits. The granting of water rights did not take into account environmental changes that might affect water availability. In fact, the water availability was based on a series of wet years, resulting in significant overallocation of rights today. Later amendments to the Compact and subsequent agreements were aggregated into what is now known as the Law of the River. Water rights were determined as hard numbers rather than percentages of available water, and the current challenge is to match the amount of water used with the available stream flow.

The conceptual importance of change over time and systemic disorder in dissipative river systems has, to date, not been applied to legal systems that allocate the rights to use water.

water rights

Water rights are legal entitlements that are granted to use water from rivers, lakes or groundwater aquifers.

Some key elements of water rights include:

  • Priority
  • Water rights are often allocated based on a priority system, where the first users, known as senior rights holders, have priority over later users, known as junior rights holders. This principle is often referred to as "first in time, first in right."
  • Beneficial Use
    Water rights can be allocated for various purposes, including agricultural irrigation, municipal and industrial use, hydropower generation, environmental conservation, and recreational activities.
  • Transferability
    In some cases, water rights can be bought, sold, leased or transferred between users.
  • Legal Framework
    Water rights are typically established and governed by a combination of common law, statutory law, administrative regulations, and court decisions at the federal, state and local levels.

The 1908 Supreme Court recognized native rights regardless of whether a tribe had used the water or not, with priority established at the time reservations were created. The state in which a reservation is located must fulfill the tribal water right per 1963 Supreme Court decision.

water infrastructure
Water infrastructures are used for storage, flood control, generation of electricity, irrigation, urban use, recreation, and the regulation of the river’s flow. There are fifteen medium and large dams on the Colorado River and hundreds of other smaller dams on its tributaries.
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Scenarios
To introduce the capabilities of this Colorado River Basin modeling application, we have created several scenarios demonstrating alternative drought futures.With this tool, current conditions and future scenarios can be visualized.

What if the current drought continues?

A significant 20-year drought has depleted reservoirs and reshaped the politics of water in the American West. If it continues, stream flows will continue to diminish, and the reservoirs behind the dams will drop further. The assumptions the water rights are based on will need to be re-negotiated.

Source: USGS, Public Domain

What if Lake Mead dead pools, and the Colorado River goes dry?

If water gets low enough in a dam, it can no longer flow through it, a condition called “dead pool.”

Source: Andrew Pernick, Bureau of Reclamation

What would be the impact of the proposed draining of Lake Powell to maintain water levels behind Hoover Dam in Lake Mead?

The “Fill Mead First” proposal includes building bypass tunnels draining Lake Powell and allowing the river to flow unobstructed downstream. This scenario models Lake Mead as the primary storage facility in the lower basin of the Colorado River. This increases the amount of water that would flow downstream that is currently lost to evaporation, and would delay or potentially prevent a dead pool condition at Lake Mead.

Source: USGS, Public Domain

The tool enables users to create other scenarios.

For example, in 2026 the federal government will conduct the re-negotiation of the water allocations for each state. What are the possible outcomes resulting from these negotiations?

history
The Colorado River is often described as the most regulated river in the world with a complex and extensive history surrounding its development. Balancing river resources among states and other interests is an ever-evolving process. Key historical events in the Colorado River on the timeline below.
1871
Grand Canyon
Exploration
Major John Wesley Powell, a Civil War veteran, led a team of nine men in four small wooden boats on an exploration of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. There are no photos from his first trip but some like this one exist from his second expedition in 1871. Photo credit National Park Service
1889
International Boundary
and Water Commission
The International Boundary and Water Commission was created by the U.S. and Mexico and is responsible for applying the boundary and water treaties between the U.S. and Mexico and settling any differences that may arise as a result of their application.
1900
Alamo Canal
The 14 mile canal that connected Colorado River to the Alamo River, which drained into the Salton Sink. Due to heavy silting, the canal was modified to increase flows to the Imperial Valley. Seasonal floods in 1905 and 1906 breached the modified head-gate and caused uncontrolled flows into the Salton Sink, creating the 35 mile-long Salton Sea.
1922
Colorado River Compact
The foundational agreement among seven U.S. states in the basin (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) to allocate the waters of the Colorado River. It divided the basin into two main areas, the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin, each with its own water allocation.
1928
Boulder Canyon
Project Act
This legislation authorized the construction of Hoover Dam and established the framework for the distribution of water from the Colorado River among the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada.
1935
Boulder Dam
Hoover Dam is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, on the border between the U.S. states of Nevada and Arizona. Constructed between 1931 and 1936, during the Great Depression, it was dedicated on September 30, 1935, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
1944
United States-Mexico Treaties
Several treaties between the United States and Mexico govern the allocation and management of Colorado River water between the two countries. Notably, the 1944 Treaty with Mexico allocated 1.5 million acre-feet of water to Mexico.
1949
All-American Canal
Located in southeastern California, the 82 mile long aqueduct conveys water from the Colorado River into the Yuma Project, the Imperial Valley, and to nine cities. The Imperial Dam diverts water into the All-American Canal. This canal system irrigates up to 630,000 acres of crop land, and is the largest irrigation canal in the world,
1956
Colorado River
Storage Project Act
This act authorized the construction of several dams and reservoirs in the Upper Basin, including Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, to regulate flows, store water, and generate hydroelectric power.
1963
Glen Canyon Dam
The construction of Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell, one of the largest artificial reservoirs in the United States. The dam serves primarily for hydroelectric power generation and regulates flows downstream, affecting the ecology of the Grand Canyon.
1968
1968 Supreme Court Decision
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case Arizona v. California, which clarified the rights of the Lower Basin states to Colorado River water and established the foundation for the Central Arizona Project (CAP).
1968
Central Arizona Project
The CAP is one of the largest and most complex water diversion projects in the United States. It consists of a network of aqueducts, pumping stations, and tunnels designed to deliver Colorado River water to central and southern Arizona for agricultural and municipal use.
Recent
Interstate Compacts
Various interstate compacts exist within the basin to manage water allocation and use among states, such as the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact and the San Juan River Compact.
Recent
Adaptive Management and International Agreements
Over time, the management of the Colorado River has evolved to address changing conditions, including drought, environmental concerns, and increasing demands for water. Efforts like the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the subsequent Drought Contingency Plans aim to adaptively manage water resources in response to changing conditions.
Data Sources
Political, hydrological, and legal data from many sources was assembled for this model. Below you can find the critical datasets that were brought together to see a comprehensive view of drought interfaces
Basin Regions
Type
map data
Format
Shapefile
Source
Colorado River Basin GIS Open Data Portal
Colorado River Basin Hydrological Boundaries with Areas served by Colorado River
Dams
Type
map data
Format
Shapefile
Source
Google Maps
Dam locations across the Colorado River.
Ecoregions
Type
map data
Format
Shapefile
Source
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Ecoregions
GIS Data for EPA Level III & IV Ecoregions including regions 6, 8, and 9.
Rivers and Lakes
Type
map data
Format
Shapefile
Source
Natural Earth Data
1:10m single-line drainages as vectors including natural and artificial lakes.
Basin Regions
Type
map data
Format
Shapefile
Source
Colorado River Basin GIS Open Data Portal
Colorado River Basin Hydrological Boundaries with Areas served by Colorado River
Colorado River Aqueduct & All American Canal
Type
map data
Format
Shapefile
Source
California State Geoportal
2023 geospatial data outlining the Colorado River Aqueduct (MWater District) & All American Canal (Imperial Irrigation District).
Central Arizona Project Canal
Type
map data
Format
Shapefile
Source
Pima County Geospatial Data Portal
2021 Geospatial data outlining the of CAP canal.
Cities
Type
map data
Format
shapefile
Source
US Cities Database
1:10m points with of physical city locations.
Counties
Type
Map data
Format
Shapefile
Source
Natural Earth Data
1:10m vectors with polygons of physical county outlines.
Parks and Protected Areas
Type
map data
Format
Shapefile
Source
Natural Earth
1:10m vectors with polygons of physical natural parks and protected areas.
States
Type
map data
Format
shapefile
Source
Natural Earth Data
1:10m vectors with polygons of physical state outlines.
Tribal Areas
Type
Shapefile
Format
CSV Data
Source
Lincoln Institute
Tribal areas within the indicated states.
Urban Areas
Type
map data
Format
shapefile
Source
Natural Earth Data
1:10m vectors with polygons of physical urban area outlines.
Water Access Seniority
Type
map data
Format
CSV Data
Source
Water Data Exchange (WaDE) Program
Historic water seniority data points only to surface water access, not access to wells.
River Streamflow
Type
simulation data
Format
River Streamflow
Source
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
USGS historic yearly streamflow data measured as feet³/second.
Average Annual Temperature
Type
simulation data
Format
-
Source
NOAA
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Colorado River Compact (1922)
Type
documents data
Format
-
Source
Congress of the United States of America
The 1922 Compact is “to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System.”
Boulder Canyon Project Act (1928)
Type
documents data
Format
-
Source
Congress of the United States of America
Establishes that the States in the Lower Basin have an allocation of 7.5 MAF per year.
Upper Colorado lever Basin Compact (1948)
Type
documents data
Format
-
Source
USBR
Establishes that the states in the Upper Basin have an allocation of 7.5 MAF per year.
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glossary
To understand the overlapping of systems that surround the Colorado River, one must understand key vocabulary related to ecological, legal, and hydrological processes. Below is a list of key terms to navigate those systems.
Term
Definition
1908 Winter Doctrine
The Supreme Court decision in Winters v. United States established the basis for Native American Reservation water rights. It ruled that the establishment of Reservations implied the inclusion of water rights to support tribal communities
1922 Colorado River Compact
The Colorado River Compact is an agreement signed by seven states in the Colorado River Basin to allocate use of the river water between the upper basin (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico) and lower basin (California, Arizona, Nevada). Each basin receives 7.5 million acre-feet per year. In 1944, an allocation for Mexico was added.
Acre-Foot
A term used in measuring the quantity of water that covers 1 acre (43,560 square feet) 1 foot deep (325,851 gallons or 1,233.5 cubic meters).
Aqueduct
A constructed water channel that transports water from the river to support both agriculture and urban use.
Basins
A basin of a river is the watershed that drains to that river.
Beneficial Use
Water that is put to use for irrigation, power, municipal and industrial use, fish and wildlife, recreation, water quality, and other purposes.
Canal
A canal is a constructed channel transporting water. Examples are the All-American Canal and the Central Arizona Project.
Capacity
The capacity of a dam is the maximum quantity of water that can be stored.
Consumptive Use
Consumptive Use is the quantity of water that is put to beneficial use, and includes evaporation from reservoirs.
Dam
A structure built across a watercourse to store or divert water.
Deadpool
The condition whereby the water level behind a dam has dropped lower than the outlet, such that no water can flow downstream from the dam.
Drought
A drought is a period of unusually dry conditions, typically caused by reduced precipitation.
Evaporation
Evaporation is the process of liquid changing states to gas at normal temperatures. Evaporated water is typically include in the calculation of consumptive use.
Ecoregions
Ecoregions are a mapping framework used by the US EPA to designate land areas with similar ecosystemic properties.
Hydrology
Hydrology is the scientific study of natural water systems, including their simulation.
Inflow
Water that flows into a body of water. The amount of water entering a reservoir expressed in acre-feet per day or cubic feet per second.
Interface
An interface is a relationship between two systems. The Colorado River has interfaces with many systems, including agricultural, political, legal, technological, and urban systems.
Legal Allocation
A negotiated quantity of water that a water rights holder put to beneficial use, which be less than their defined water right.
Lower Basin
The lower basin includes Arizona, Nevada and California.
Monitoring Stations
The flow and properties of the Colorado River is monitored by a network of dozens of USGS stations that collect data on streamflow, water levels, and water quality.
NID ID
National Inventory of Dam ID; primary key.
Power Deadpool
When the water level behind a dam falls to this level, electrical generation ceases.
Scenario
A set of assumptions modeling water allocations in the basins.
Streamflow
Streamflow refers to the volume of water passing through a point in a river or stream.
Tribal Rights
Tribal water rights assigned to tribal lands were established with the 1908 Supreme Court decision Winters v. United States, which determined that the establishment of Reservations included the establishment of associated water rights to support tribal communities.
Upper Basin
The upper basin includes Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico
Water Allocation
The negotiated right to use water to meet the various beneficial uses. An allocation is equal to or less than a water right.
Water Allocation Format
Defines whether water rights are defined with fixed values or percentage values.
Water Allocation Type
Defines whether water is being driven from legal allocation or actual supply.
Water Right Seniority
Water rights are adjudicated based on the principle of first come, first served. In the event of a shortage of water, the most senior rights holder is given preference over junior rights holders.
Watermaster Jurisdictions
Watermasters are appointed by the courts and are responsible for the overseeing the adjudications and compliance with water right agreements in a watershed.
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COLLABORATORS
To understand the overlapping of systems that surround the Colorado River, one must understand key vocabulary related to ecological, legal, and hydrological processes. Below is a list of key terms to navigate those systems.
StudyTank
StudyTank is the research arm of the Wright-Ingraham Institute. It brings together collaborative, multi-disciplinary researchers - “research clusters” - to engage with critical issues. The nature of these issues can be speculative or analytic, environmental, socio-political, or scientific. Methodologically, StudyTank studies diverse interfaces between human culture and ecological systems, with a particular focus on land and water networks. This work contributes to integrative practices and bodies of knowledge that advance human understanding and use of complex systems. It also invites productive cross-pollination of the Wright-Ingraham Institute’s programs and mission.
Certain Measures
Certain Measures (CM) is a creative studio that designs spaces, experiences, and products that connect physical and digital realities. We partner with forward-thinking people from across cultural, industrial, and government sectors to realize data-driven projects that fuse imagination and systems thinking. We work between physical structure and bespoke software, bridging across mediums and scales to envision a brighter and more hopeful planetary future.