WWA Research Themes

Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity in the Western Water Assessment Region

How does the region’s changing exposure to climate affect the region’s adaptive capacity?

Several sectors in the WWA region are quite sensitive to changes in climate, including the land management, water, agriculture, energy, transportation, outdoor recreation and public health sectors. As temperature and precipitation patterns change, these sectors increasingly need to evaluate and implement options for climate adaptation.

The region is accustomed to coping with variability in water supply, and has developed a variety of strategies including physical adaptations (e.g. increased reservoir storage), enhanced planning (e.g. the Colorado State Drought Plan, Utah’s statewide water planning effort, Salt Lake City’s work with water and climate scenarios) improved monitoring and decision support tools, legal and regulatory efforts, and climate change-related studies.

Many of these strategies may be robust under a changing climate, but others may not. For example, the system of water allocation and management put in place over a century ago to cope with the variability in water supply was implemented under assumptions of a stationary climate —but its ability to respond effectively to maintain water system reliability under changing conditions has been questioned.

The vulnerability faced by regional decision makers can be conceptualized as a function of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. As vulnerability is produced by both biophysical and social factors, it is essential to approach the study of vulnerability as a coupled human-environment system from an interdisciplinary perspective.

The effective use of relevant, reliable information is a key part of adaptive capacity. Reliable hydroclimate information is critical to support flexible decision making and enable innovative mechanisms to meet the challenge of climate change. There is often a mismatch, however, between the scale at which information is needed and the scale at which it is valid. For example, information on how climate change will affect water supplies is generated at a much coarser scale than the scale at which it is needed. The projects in this theme aim to help characterize changing vulnerability to climate at scales that matter, and understand what adaptation options are the most viable going forward.

Current Research Projects