Here’s the release from the University of Nevada Reno (Nicole Sheaer):
Mountain snowpack is a primary source of water for the arid western United States. This region, which includes Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, receives precipitation in mountains far from agricultural fields, and during the winter months when crops are not grown. Water allocation institutions are the rules, regulations, rights and management strategies that determine how that water gets distributed among competing uses. Changes in mountain snowpack is altering water availability in ways that are not yet well understood, and it is not clear how well existing water allocation institutions will cope with these changes.
To bring scientific focus to these inevitable changes, the University of Nevada, Reno recently received a $4.97 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to lead a major research effort that includes the Desert Research Institute; Colorado State University; Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University.
“Water is our most precious resource and finding solutions for dealing with water scarcity and quality is critical for communities across the U.S. who grow and raise the food we eat,” Acting NIFA Director Tom Shanower said. “By investing in projects that address a critical problem for American agriculture, we aim to find better tools and technologies for water management practices that make a difference for our farmers, ranchers, and foresters.”
Changes in water availability
“Agriculture in the arid West has historically benefitted from natural storage and predictable melt rates of mountain snowpacks; but, existing built water storage and delivery infrastructure no longer represent our snowpacks,” Adrian Harpold, assistant professor in the University of Nevada, Reno College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, said. “Earlier melting of mountain snowpack alters the timing of runoff, putting additional pressure on reservoirs to meet the needs of agricultural water rights holders.”
Changes in availability and seasonal timing of mountain snowpack runoff mean that everyone, from farmers to municipal managers, is going to have to adapt. Conflicts have already arisen where existing water allocation laws and regulations have failed to allocate water in accordance with all rights holders’ expectations, and water authorities have intervened to limit permitted water rights. According to the researchers on this project, Western water allocation strategies may benefit from changes to adapt to long-term mountain snow-melt patterns.
“This change in runoff timing will require more active management of reservoirs, based on new hydrometeorological forecasts rather than on historical climate norms, to enhance water supply for downstream consumption and to mitigate floods,” Seshadri Rajagopal, assistant research professor in the Division of Hydrologic Science at the Desert Research Institute, said.
During the next five years, the interdisciplinary team that includes hydrologists and economists will evaluate the following:
• How changes in mountain snowpack affect available water;
• Which basins in the arid West are most at risk;
• The effectiveness of existing water allocation laws and regulation in managing these changes, in comparison with proposed modifications;
• How changes in available water, and laws and regulations, affect the economic well-being of various groups in society – including the sustainability of agricultural production in the arid West.
“The impacts of changing mountain snowmelt on water rights holders are profound,” Kim Rollins, University of Nevada, Reno professor and project director for the grant, said. “Increased risk affects private decisions to sell irrigation water rights, potentially causing permanent losses in the capacity for food production in the arid West. Decision-making can be improved with a better understanding of how changes in water flows influence agriculture producer decision-making and how laws and regulations can exacerbate or relieve constraints imposed by these changes.”
Information gathered will aim to inform three sets of decision-makers. The first are the regional, state and federal water policymakers. The second are the local water district managers as they determine, according to the laws and regulations set forth by policy, where and when to divert water flows from the various sources through their systems to end users. The third set of decision-makers are the individual agricultural producers and other water rights holders in deciding how they will use water and how they will respond to changes in their water rights.
“To be of value to decision-makers, empirical information must be provided in a manner that specifically addresses the decision problems at hand,” Loretta Singletary, interdisciplinary outreach liaison, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and professor, University of Nevada, Reno, said. “This means that timing, format, units of measurement, accessibility and other attributes of empirical information need to be designed to be of practical use to improve decision-making outcomes.”
• Kimberly Rollins, professor, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Business, Department of Economics and Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station, College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources;
• Loretta Singletary, interdisciplinary outreach liaison, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and professor, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Business, Department of Economics;
• Adrian Harpold, assistant professor in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, and Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Nevada, Reno, College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources; Global Water Center;
• Michael Taylor, assistant professor, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Business, Department of Economics and state specialist in agricultural and resource, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension;
• Gi-Eu Lee, postdoctoral fellow, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Business, Department of Economics;
• Seshadri Rajagopal, assistant research professor, Desert Research Institute, Division of Hydrologic Sciences;
• Greg Pohll, professor, Desert Research Institute, Division of Hydrologic Sciences;
• Dale Manning, assistant professor, Colorado State University, College of Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural and Resource Economics Department;
• Christopher Goemans, associate professor, Colorado State University, College of Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural and Resource Economics Department;
• Abigail York, associate professor, Arizona State University, School of Human Evolution and Social Change;
• Benjamin Ruddell, associate professor, Northern Arizona University, School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems;
• Bryan Leonard, assistant professor, Arizona State University, School of Sustainability.
More on the grant from Colorado State University (Anne Manning):
Bringing their expertise to the team will be CSU associate professor Christopher Goemans, and assistant professor Dale Manning, both in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the College of Agricultural Sciences. Together, Goemans and Manning will develop an economic model that identifies how, over the next 30 years, different groups who use water in the West could gain or lose water access, depending on the timing and amounts of water available within seasons.
The CSU researchers’ ultimate goal is to help water managers, farmers and other users plan for the future by modeling various scenarios of water availability and allocation. For example, their model could help inform decisions about water release versus storage on a seasonal basis, or how water rights within existing laws might benefit from change.
“While infrastructure investment can improve the timing of water deliveries, designing allocation rules and regulations that account for the multiple values of water can be equally important to getting the most out of scarce water resources in the face of uncertain supply,” Manning said. “As snowmelt patterns change, both junior and senior water rights holders may be adversely affected. In this context, inflexible laws and regulations could result in rights holders wasting water, or being reluctant to adopt conservation technology to avoid the risk of losing water rights.”
Water management will change
Water policy analysts predict that water management in the western U.S. will undergo extensive changes to adapt to mountain snow melt patterns. The speed and extent to which these changes can occur depend on water allocation rules and regulations. This has caused recent conflicts where existing water allocation laws and regulations have failed to distribute water in accordance with all rights holders’ expectations. Given existing laws and the risk of over-allocating limited supplies, states and regional water authorities have intervened to limit permitted water rights.
“Water rights laws may hinder adaptation to climate change in the arid western U.S.,” Goemans said. “If senior water rights holders – namely food-producing and cash crop agriculture customers – are unable to get the water they need, the economic viability of irrigated agriculture could decline significantly.”
The impacts of changing volume and timing of snow melt on water rights users are profound, according to Kim Rollins, a University of Nevada, Reno economics professor and the grant’s project director. “Increased risk is involved with private decisions to sell irrigation water rights and lands, causing permanent losses in the capacity for food production in the arid West,” Rollins said. “Decision-making can be improved with a better understanding of how changes in water flows influence agricultural producer decision-making and how laws and regulations can exacerbate or relieve constraints from these changes.”
Information gathered will aim to inform three sets of decision-makers. The first are the regional, state and federal water policymakers that create the legal infrastructure for allocating water. The second are the local water district managers as they determine where and when to divert water flows from the various sources through their systems to end users, given existing law. The third set of decision-makers includes the individual agricultural producers and other water rights holders that decide how they will use water and how they will respond to changes in their water rights.