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Coping With Megadrought in the Colorado River Basin

Event Date
May 27, 2020
Event Time
2:00 pm - 3:00 pm

As the Colorado River Basin experienced 2020’s “sneaky drought” amid a long-term pattern that looks increasingly like one of the region’s millennial “megadroughts” that last decades, water managers have worked on ways to adapt. Where have we seen success, and which communities are vulnerable as climate change continues to eat away a river on which 40 million people depend?


Introduction & Welcome

Speaker: Elizabeth Weight, NOAA's National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES)

  • Introduction of today's speaker: John Fleck, Director of the University of New Mexico's Water Resources Program
  • The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) was created by Congressional law in 2006 with a mandate to help the nation prepare for, mitigate, and respond to the effects of drought.



Coping with Megadrought in the Colorado River Basin

Speaker: John Fleck, University of New Mexico Water Resources Program

  • The Colorado River Basin spans two nations, 7 U.S. states, 29 tribal nations, 5+ million acres of irrigated farmland, and 40 million people.
  • A dry 2019 summer and fall meant low soil moisture going into the winter of 2019–2020.
  • A 2020 study led by Columbia University examines the Southwest megadrought:
    • The first two decades of the 21st century have been the driest such period since the 1500s, as measured by summer soil moisture proxies.
    • The researchers concluded that anthropogenic warming is responsible for around half of that dryness.
  • Reservoir storage in the Colorado River Basin:
    • Hoover Dam, creating Lake Mead, was built in the 1930s. Glen Canyon Dam, creating Lake Powell, was built in the 1960s.
    • Reservoirs built over the 21st century can hold 5 times the Colorado's annual flow.
    • They began the 21st century nearly full. Now they are not.
  • So what do we do next?
    • More municipal water conservation
    • A growing urban-rural social contract
    • Better rules about sharing what remains as we continue to see shrinking supplies



Questions & Answers

Moderator: Elizabeth Weight, NOAA/NIDIS, CIRES