Current Research Projects

Below is a list of WWA's current research projects. Click on the title of a project for a description. For further information, contact the primary investigator or email us at

- Usability of Remotely Sensed Snowpack Data for Streamflow Forecasting and Water System Management
- Regional Extremes Database and Event Maps
- Informing the Integration of Climate Information into Water Supply Planning in Various Contexts in Utah
- Use of Potential Evapotranspiration to Predict Future Water Demand
- Adapting Stormwater Infrastructure to Extreme Precipitation
- Balancing Severe Decision Conflicts under Climate Extremes in Water Resource Management
- Evaporation, Drought, and the Water Cycle Across Timescales: Climate Foundational Sciences for NCCSC
- Decision Analysis for Climate Adaptation
- Evaluation of Drought Planning Research on the Wind River Reservation
- Mapping Climate Services

Assessing Regional Climate Vulnerabilities to Support Adaptation


Usability of Remotely Sensed Snowpack Data for Streamflow Forecasting and Water System Management

Primary Investigators: J. Lukas, N. Molotch, J. Deems
Other Investigators: B. Livneh, M. Raleigh, J. Berggren, K. Jennings
Stakeholders: National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), Uncompahgre Basin water managers, Rio Grande Basin water managers, Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

Using remotely sensed snowpack data to reduce negative impacts in water management

A key indicator of water availability, and the primary input to streamflow models, is April 1 snow water equivalent (SWE) in watersheds. April 1 SWE has historically been calculated from a network of in-situ SNOTEL observing sites across the West, but two remote-sensing-based approaches have recently been developed to complement and extend the SNOTEL network. In the first approach, used by Molotch and group, MODIS satellite snow-cover measurements along with a regression from historic SNOTEL data are combined to reconstruct SWE. In the second, used by Deems and group, airborne LIDAR measurements of snow depth are used to estimate SWE. This project aims to understand the usability of these spatial SWE products by water managers, and their potential to improve runoff forecasts. We will interview water managers in the Uncompahgre and Rio Grande River Basins in summer 2016 to better understand their needs and concerns with respect to snow data and runoff forecasting. Focusing on recent stressful events as identified by the water managers, we will use the spatial SWE products and hydrologic models to simulate how the new SWE products could have provided better information to prepare for those events.  PI Molotch and K. Jennings have prepared MODIS data for the two basins to be used in hydrologic models.  PI Deems has prepared ASO data from the Uncompahgre Basin for use in the models.  Investigator Raleigh will use the SNOW-17 model, which is currently used by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, while Livneh will use the DHSVM model to explore the impact of various snow regimes on streamflow.


Regional Extremes Database and Event Maps

Primary Investigators: W. Travis, J. Lukas, K. Wolter
Other Investigators: A. McCurdy
Stakeholders: Hazard mitigation planners, emergency managers, water resource managers

Developing a database and visualizations of extreme events to assist hazard planners and emergency managers.

Extreme events cause the majority of societal costs related to weather and climate and can provoke adaptive responses. WWA has begun a new focus that is designed to place extreme events in the context of historical climate variability and projected climate change, assess how risk varies over time and space, and examine how extreme events interact with place-based vulnerability. The first activity in this new research theme has been to build a database of historical extreme weather and climate events in the WWA three-state region (Colorado, Utah and Wyoming). This regional extremes database is intended to be useful to hazard planners and emergency managers trying to identify where and when the risk for different types of extreme events is greatest. It will also serve as a foundation for further research on what leads to the variation in risk over time and space. Two databases have been compiled: a selective roster of ~160 of the highest-impact weather and climate events in the three-state region back to the mid-1800s, and a more comprehensive dataset from culled from the NOAA NCEI Storm Events Database focused on the post-1950 period that includes over 20,000 weather events. The roster of high-impact events has been reviewed by all three of the state climate offices in our region, and as of spring 2016 is available on the WWA website.  From the larger dataset of storm events, we generated a set of monthly occurrence maps, by county, for ten different event types, and these are also available on the WWA website.  We are currently reaching out to stakeholders to solicit suggestions to refine these products and apply the data. 

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Informing the Integration of Climate Information into Water Supply Planning in Various Contexts in Utah

Primary Investigator: S. Arens
Other Investigator: J. Lukas
Stakeholders: Utah Division of Water Resources, Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, Wasatch Area Dendroclimatology Research Group
Partners: D. Rosenberg (Utah State University), S. McGettigan and A. Nay (Utah Division of Water Resources), J. DeRose (US Forest Service)

Exploring climate change impacts and adaptation opportunities in various water management contexts in Utah

This project description encompasses a number of smaller efforts aimed at helping water managers in Utah understand the potential impacts of climate change to water resources and consider climate change impacts and adaptation when planning for the future. Building off of previous work with Salt Lake City Public Utilities, WWA began to work with other major water management groups in Utah. WWA engaged with the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District in partnership with Utah Division of Water Resources (UTDWR) on a project evaluating both the impacts of climate change on future water supply and paleohydrology scenarios for the reliability of water deliveries on the Weber Basin. Current work with Weber Basin focuses on incorporating information from a 500-year reconstruction and future projections of Weber River flow into water management and planning.  Future work will include refining systems modeling analysis, in partnership with UTDWR, and developing realistic future scenarios for planning.

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Use of Potential Evapotranspiration to Predict Future Water Demand

Primary Investigator: S. Arens
Partners: B. Forsythe, T. Schultz (Jordan Valley WCD), C. Dewes
Stakeholders: Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District (Jordan Valley WCD)

Using downscaled projections of future potential evapotranspiration to predict future water demand

This project will provide both projections of potential evapotranspiration (PET) and past trends in evapotranspiration (ET) and its components to help JVWCD understand how water demand may change in the future.  The Multivariate Adaptive Constructive Analog (MACA) downscaled climate dataset will be used to calculate PET for three future time periods.  An analysis of past trends in ET, evaporation and the physical drivers of both processes will be conducted.  A key component of future water demand is also the length of the outdoor watering season; projections of future temperatures and the growing degree day index will be used to characterize future changes in the length of the outdoor watering season.  This study aims to inform long-term planning for JVWCD by giving estimates of how much outdoor water demand may change due to changes in PET.

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Adapting Stormwater Infrastructure to Extreme Precipitation

Primary Investigators: W. Travis, A. McCurdy, I. Rangwala
Stakeholders: Stormwater managers

Increases in precipitation intensity raise the question of how to adapt stormwater infrastructure. We developed a model to simulate the effects of increasing flows on roadway culverts, which are typically constructed to convey certain flow volumes. Key model inputs include when and how to modify stormwater infrastructure as climate changes and culvert failures become more likely. By the end of this reporting period WWA Graduate Student Adam McCurdy successfully produced several adaptation simulations using the model for a testbed of selected Colorado culvert emplacements. McCurdy presented on the results at the Adaptation Futures conference in May, 2016 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.  That presentation and two articles prepared for submission, available as working papers in the WWA website, convey the key findings related to different rates of climate change and four different adaptation strategies: Nominal, Anticipatory, Reactive, and Concurrent. The Nominal Strategy assumes no change in culvert replacement strategy over the entire simulation; in the event that a crossing’s lifespan is reached, or the crossing is destroyed by a runoff event, it is replaced with a crossing of the same capacity. Under the Anticipatory Strategy, all crossings are replaced with higher capacity crossings prior to the end of their normal lifespans. Under the Concurrent Strategy the capacity of each crossing is increased at the time of normal replacement. The Reactive Strategy begins with the Nominal Strategy and switches to the Concurrent Strategy when a crossing is replaced following damage by an extreme event. Results indicate that aggressive anticipatory replacement of culverts is economically inefficient even under rather large climate change scenarios. This is due to the sunk investment of culverts and the traffic disruption caused by construction. The most efficient adaptation pathway under climate uncertainty appears to be to invest more effort to evaluate the vulnerability of each culvert no matter what its life-cycle status, and adapt only those likely to failure in the near term.

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Balancing Severe Decision Conflicts under Climate Extremes in Water Resource Management

Primary Investigators: L. Dilling, J. Kasprzyk, L. Kaatz (Denver Water)
Other Investigators: R. Smith, K. Averyt, I. Rangwala, L. Basdekas (Colorado Springs Utilities)
Stakeholders: Denver Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, Northern Water Conservancy District, Aurora Water, City of Boulder Utilities, City of Fort Collins Utilities (collectively known as the Front Range Climate Change Group)

Exploring the utility of multi-objective evolutionary algorithms (MOEAs) for improving the ability of water utilities to identify viable adaptation strategies under climate extremes

Over the past several years there have been increasing calls for decision support tools in the area of climate and acknowledgement that changing extremes add to an already challenging decision environment for water managers.  Recurring droughts, flood events, and concerns over extreme events in the future have created a strong interest among water managers in the Front Range of Colorado in how to plan for these extremes.  Traditional methods of identifying alternatives for water supply management may not fully capture the range of existing preferred alternatives, meaning that utilities may miss some of the solutions that appropriately balance among tradeoffs. In this project we have co-produced and are testing a newly developed multi-objective decision tool, balancing conflicting management objectives for water planning under climate extremes and determining how policy alternatives perform under severe climate uncertainty.  In the past year, we have developed a complete model of the hypothetical Front Range water management context, developed and tested management/planning decision levers and encoded them in the model, and are performing preliminary optimizations runs.  We are developing performance objectives for the model and have begun using CMIP3 and CMIP5 Bureau of Reclamation downscaled climate projections to develop climate scenarios to test the utility of the MOEA tool.  Finally, we have continued community outreach to several utilities along the Front Range and are planning a second workshop.

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Understanding and Monitoring Drought


Advancing the Use of Drought Early Warning Systems in the Upper Colorado River Basin

Primary Investigators: B. Livneh, L. Dilling, W. Travis, J. Lukas
Other Investigators: N. Doesken, E. Kuhn, R. Page
Stakeholders: Water resource managers, drought information providers
Funding: NOAA Sectoral Applications Research Program (SARP)

Identifying opportunities to improve drought risk management by characterizing decision processes and assessing the robustness of snowpack drought indicators.

For the past several years, the NIDIS Upper Colorado River Basin (UCRB) Drought Early Warning System (DEWS), led by the Colorado Climate Center, has provided regular webinars and a web resource to convey climate and water information to stakeholders throughout the basin, to help them anticipate and respond to droughts.

The DEWS service has been well received by users, but we lack a comprehensive picture of how water managers are using the drought indicators conveyed in the DEWS to make decisions about water resources. There may also be opportunities to improve the DEWS by incorporating new drought indicators, or conveying existing indicators in new ways.

We aim to advance the DEWS and strengthen drought risk management practices on Colorado’s Western Slope by providing a clearer understanding of the decision and risk management process for water entities facing drought; identifying barriers to introducing new indicators into the risk management process; and evaluating how the usefulness of drought indicators may be affected by climate change.

Working with several Western Slope water entities, the study team is conduct in-person interviews with key staff; observing meetings; and reviewing drought planning documents; and in the next phase, holding small-group discussions. We’ve asked participants about drought outcomes, what information they rely on to understand drought risk, and how they make decisions about drought.

We have also been conducting hydrologic model simulations to assess whether snowpack (e.g., April 1 SWE) and other drought indicators will continue to provide useful information under a changing climate, given the current drought management procedures. We will share initial simulation results with the participants in 2017 to guide additional analyses.

Deliverables to date:

Livneh, B., A. M. Badger, and J. J. Lukas, 2017: Assessing the robustness of snow-based drought indicators in the Upper Colorado River Basin under future climate change, World Environmental and Water Resources Congress, May 2017-03, p 15.


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Evaporation, Drought, and the Water Cycle Across Timescales: Climate Foundational Sciences for the North Central Climate Science Center

Primary Investigator(s): I. Rangwala, J. Barsugli, B. Livneh, M. Hobbins (NIDIS)
Other Investigator(s): J. Lukas, A. Ray
Stakeholders: The Nature Conservancy, US Forest Service, other conservation agencies
Partners: J. Morisette, D. Ojima, and S. McNeeley (NCCSC); R. Rondeau, CO Natural Heritage Program; J. Rice (Southern Rockies LCC); L. Joyce (USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station); D. Llewellyn (Bureau of Reclamation); M. Friggens (US Forest Service)

Providing climate science support for the DOI North Central Climate Science Center, particularly for water cycle issues

The goals of this project are twofold: First, we aim to co-produce relevant climate information and integrate that into the socio-ecological decision making context.  This includes helping with the development of future climate scenarios for specific projects, application of existing and emerging climate products and tools, interpretation of emerging and relevant physical science research, and continuous engagement with stakeholders and boundary organizations in exploring appropriate tools and datasets. Second, we are conducting primary research into drivers of hydro-climatic trends and extremes in the North Central Great Plains and Intermountain West Regions (Missouri River Basin and Upper Colorado River Basin) across multiple timescales. These include understanding drivers of droughts and developing better indicators for short and long term drought.  We organized a 2-day workshop, September 24-25, 2015 on the application of high-resolution climate models (HRCMs) for socio-ecological adaptation in the NC CSC regions at the NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder. The motivation was to explore recent advances in HRCMs and discuss how can they better inform ecological impacts modeling and adaptation projects in the US Northern Great Plains and Mountains. The workshop, attended by climate modelers and expert users of climate information for socio-ecological impacts assessment, was structured around three major themes: (a) convective precipitation, (b) land-surface feedbacks, and (c) usability of HRCM output.

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Decision Analysis for Climate Adaptation

Primary Investigator: W. Travis
Other Investigator: A. McCurdy
Stakeholders: Agricultural producers, extension agents
Funding: National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS)

Development of simulation models and decision tools for drought and hydro-climatic uncertainty in climate adaptation

The adaptation decision analysis project seeks to analyze decision processes in climate-sensitive sectors and to build decision models that act as both research tools and decision aids. We focus on two sectors: dryland agriculture and ranching. The goal is to provide decision aids to those sectors while also conducting research to better understand the processes underlying people’s adaptation decisions. Underlying this work is a basic question: When is it time to change strategies and practices in a changing climate? We developed and submitted for publication the “Crop Switch” model that assesses the benefits of changing crops in the Northern Great Plains as the climate warms and winter wheat becomes less susceptible to winter kill. This includes calculation of the role of crop insurance in making the switch.  A new effort is underway to model rancher adaptation to drought in collaboration with the USDA NPRCH and the DoI NC CSC. The prototype “Ranch Drought” model is built on an Extension Service ranch decision tool coupled with an Agricultural Research Service drought calculator, and a module that calculates range insurance payouts according to the USDA Risk Management Agency’s new forage, range and pasture index insurance program.

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Evaluation of Drought Planning Research on the Wind River Reservation

Primary Investigator: E. McNie
Stakeholders: S. McNeeley (North Central Climate Science Center), C. Knutson (National Drought Mitigation Center), Wind River Reservation

Providing support for tribal drought planning efforts on the Wind River Reservation

In collaboration with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes, WWA partners at the DoI NC CSC and the NDMC are developing a comprehensive drought plan for the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. The research team is developing analytical tools and provides analysis to inform the drought plan. WWA investigator McNie’s role is providing evaluation support and helping to inform the research design. She will use a typology of research approaches to guide the design and analysis of research goals, objectives and processes in order to ensure that the project meets its goals of producing useful drought information to inform future policy decisions.

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Evaluation and Usability of Stakeholder-Oriented Science

Mapping Climate Services

Primary Investigators: E. McNie, A. Meadow (CLIMAS, University of Arizona)
Stakeholders:  NOAA Western Regional Collaboration Team

Toward closing the gap between climate service providers and users

Adapting to climate change requires decision makers to have information in hand that is relevant to solve their problems, information that is salient, credible and legitimate. Decision makers, however, do not often have the information they need; perhaps they are unaware of existing useful information, get too much of the wrong kind of information, or have information needs that go unmet, leaving them to muddle through important decisions that could help people adapt to climate variability and change. Hundreds of organizations have been created or evolved to help create, translate and disseminate potentially useful climate information. Such “climate service organizations” exist in both public and private domains, at research universities and private organizations, and represent a wide variety of sectors. Unfortunately, potential users of climate information often do not know where to look for relevant information, nor are producers of climate information well-connected to potential users, resulting in a gap that separates the supply and demand of climate information. This project represents a first attempt to reduce this gap by creating a comprehensive database of climate service providers in the western United States. Organizations were assigned attributes based on the sector in which they work, the types of information they provide, the service area covered, the type of sponsoring organization, and many others. The finished product will be a searchable database that is open and usable by the public.

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