Water resource systems have provided vital support to transformative growth in the Southwest United States; and for more than a century the Salt River Project (SRP) has served as a model of success among multipurpose federal reclamation projects, currently delivering approximately 40% of water demand in the metropolitan Phoenix area. Drought concerns have sensitized water management to risks posed by natural variability and forthcoming climate change.
Full simulations originating in climate modeling have been the conventional approach to impacts assessment. But, once debatable climate projections are applied to hydrologic models challenged to accurately represent the region’s arid hydrology, the range of possible scenarios enlarges as uncertainties propagate through sequential levels of modeling complexity. Numerous issues render future projections frustratingly uncertain, leading many researchers to conclude it will be some decades before hydroclimatic modeling can provide specific and useful information to water management.
Alternatively, this research investigation inverts the standard approach to vulnerability assessment and begins with characterization of the threatened system, proceeding backwards to the uncertain climate future. Thorough statistical analysis of historical watershed climate and runoff enabled development of (a) a stochastic simulation methodology for net basin supply (NBS) that renders the entire range of droughts, and (b) hydrologic sensitivities to temperature and precipitation changes. An operations simulation model was developed for assessing the SRP reservoir system’s cumulative response to inflow variability and change. After analysis of the current system’s drought response, a set of climate change forecasts for the balance of this century were developed and translated through hydrologic sensitivities to drive alternative NBS time series assessed by reservoir operations modeling.
Statistically significant changes in key metrics were found for climate change forecasts, but the risk of reservoir depletion was found to remain zero. System outcomes fall within ranges to which water management is capable of responding. Actions taken to address natural variability are likely to be the same considered for climate change adaptation. This research approach provides specific risk assessments per unambiguous methods grounded in observational evidence in contrast to the uncertain projections thus far prepared for the region.