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
- Drought Planning on the Wasatch Front Using Paleo-Drought Information and Future Climate Projections
- Use of Potential Evapotranspiration to Predict Future Water Demand
- Balancing Severe Decision Conflicts under Climate Extremes in Water Resource Management
- Extreme Precipitation Estimation Under Climate Change for Dam Safety
- Dynamics of Drought Vulnerability Between Urban and Rural Communities
- Advancing the Use of Drought Early Warning Systems in the Upper Colorado River Basin
- Decision Analysis for Climate Adaptation
- 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: N. Molotch, J. Deems
Other Investigator(s): B. Livneh, M. Raleigh, J. Berggren, J. Lukas
Stakeholders: National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), Uncompahgre 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), which has historically been monitored 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 will assess the usability of these spatial SWE products by water managers, and their potential to improve runoff forecasts. In summer 2016, phone interviews were conducted with water managers in the Uncompahgre River and Rio Grande basins to better understand how they have used snowpack data and runoff forecasts in their decision-making, especially managing for drought years and very wet years. Focusing on those recent years in which there were unusual snowpack and runoff conditions that were difficult to monitor, forecast, and prepare for, we will use the spatial SWE products and hydrologic model simulations to assess whether 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. K. Jennings leveraged high-resolution snow depth observations and snow water equivalent (SWE) estimates from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) in order to quantify errors in current snow products. He found the large spatial scale of NLDAS-2 grid cells made the snow product unsuitable for use. Only 8 grid cells completely or partially overlapped the Uncompahgre River Basin and they often showed snow-free conditions when snow was still reported at the two aforementioned SNOTEL sites. Similarly, the SNODAS SWE product performed poorly relative to ASO data (Fig. 1). SNODAS typically overestimated subalpine SWE while significantly underestimating alpine SWE. We have also taken initial steps towards modeling SWE in the Uncompahgre using the Distributed Hydrology Vegetation Soil Model (DHSVM).


Drought Planning on the Wasatch Front Using Paleo-Drought Information and Future Climate Projections

Primary Investigator(s): S. Arens
Stakeholders: Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, Utah Division of Water Resources and Utah State University
Partners: D. Johnson and D. Hess (Weber Basin Water Conservancy District), D. Rosenberg and J. Stagge (Utah State University), S. McGettigan, C. Hasenyager and A. Nay (Utah Division of Water Resources)

Drought contingency plan development for Weber Basin Water Conservancy District

Weber Basin Water Conservancy District (WBWCD) was awarded a grant in June 2016 from the US Bureau of Reclamation to develop a drought contingency plan. Arens received one month of salary from the grant award to develop future projections of Weber River streamflow. The project uses a RiverWare systems model of the Weber River Basin to explore how past and future droughts may impact water availability and reservoir storage in the Weber River Basin. WBWCD is a relatively junior water rights holder, despite providing water to several hundred thousand residents of the northern Wasatch Front. The project will use information derived from paleo-reconstructions of Weber River streamflow using tree rings to understand how droughts of the past could impact water availability in the Weber River Basin. Future Weber River streamflows were projected using the NOAA Colorado Basin River Forecast Center operational models. Information about past and future drought conditions in the Weber River Basin will be used to develop a drought contingency plan to help WBWCD prepare for future variability in Weber River water availability.

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Use of Potential Evapotranspiration to Predict Future Water Use

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

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

This project will provide projections of potential evapotranspiration (PET), past trends in PET 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 PET, 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. A model between observed PET and outdoor water use was developed. This model was then used to predict future outdoor water use based on projections of future PET. This study aims to inform long-term planning for JVWCD by giving estimates of how much outdoor water use may change due to changes in PET.

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Balancing Severe Decision Conflicts Under Climate Extremes in Water Resource Management

Primary Investigator(s): L. Dilling, J. Kasprzyk, L. Kaatz (Denver Water)
Other Investigator(s): 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, floods, 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 completed optimization runs with a complete model of the hypothetical Front Range water management context. We have developed performance objectives for the model and used CMIP3 and CMIP5 Bureau of Reclamation downscaled climate projections to develop climate scenarios to test the utility of the MOEA tool. We conducted a workshop to evaluate how water managers interacted with the tool and understand its use in potential future decisions. WWA collaborators contributed significant expertise in the design and conduct of the workshop. A dissertation project is being completed summarizing the results of these experiments and tool testing.

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Extreme Precipitation Estimation Under Climate Change for Dam Safety

Primary Investigator(s): K. Mahoney, J. Lukas
Stakeholders: Colorado Division of Water Resources Dam Safety Program; New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, CO-NM REPS technical advisory board members and other stakeholders

Assessing the state of the science and practice in extreme precipitation estimation under climate change

The Colorado Division of Water Resources and the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer have identified and set as a priority the need to update their extreme precipitation estimates for use in the evaluation of spillway adequacy for dams in these states, based on the most modern methods and scientific understanding available. Due to similarities in geography and meteorology between Colorado and New Mexico, a cooperative, regional study (Colorado-New Mexico Regional Extreme Precipitation Study; CO-NM REPS) has been undertaken, the first instance of states combining resources and working collaboratively toward a solution to the problem. The project began in June 2016 and is scheduled to be completed in June 2018. Of particular concern in both states are questions about the physical limits on high-elevation rainfall amounts and the annual exceedance probability (AEP) of the extreme rainfall amounts used for spillway design. This has led to an innovative ensemble approach deploying three different methods to update extreme precipitation estimates. The CO-NM REPS does not seek to explicitly incorporate climate change influences in Probable Maximum Precipitation (PMP) estimates through any three approaches. Recognizing that the approaches may have limitations in characterizing future risk in a changing climate, the study’s sponsors have asked WWA to take stock of the state of the science and practice in PMP estimation and climate change in a white paper that will become an appendix of the study final report. An initial literature search and review was completed in spring 2017, and is currently being supplemented by a survey of the experts comprising the CO-NM REPS Technical Advisory Board.

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Dynamics of Drought Vulnerability Between Urban and Rural Communities

Primary Investigator: J. Henderson, L. Dilling, U. Rick, R. Morss (NCAR) and O. Wilhelmi (NCAR)
Stakeholders: Water utilities, municipalities, and agricultural community along Arkansas River Basin

Understanding who and how populations are impacted by drought

As municipalities implement adaptation or mitigation plans based on past drought experience that improve their resilience, emergent and unexpected vulnerabilities can arise in response to these changes. They can happen immediately in response to water strategies or may be displaced in time or space (e.g. in rural communities months later). The goals of this project are threefold: 1) To understand the types of vulnerabilities to drought that water utilities, industries, agricultural producers, and municipal leaders are concerned about and plan for; 2) To trace the dynamic nature of vulnerabilities to drought that emerge between urban and adjacent rural communities as the implement drought plans; 3) To identify the triggers for emergent vulnerabilities that may be displaced across time and space in drought contexts. To meet these goals, the PI is interviewing representatives from each stakeholder group in sites along the Arkansas River Basin. Initial results suggest that stakeholders are well versed in the common vulnerabilities their sector faces, and even new resilient strategies that have emerged based on experiences with recent droughts (e.g. 2002 and 2012). However, many expressed surprise at some of the unanticipated outcomes in adjacent communities. This project will be extended to two other sites, in Utah and Wyoming, to better understand the range of stakeholder needs for better information about drought and climate information, new strategies for thinking about the interrelatedness between urban and rural communities, and tools that may help them better understand their own sector’s or community’s unique vulnerabilities and resilience strategies based on past experiences with drought.

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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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Decision Analysis for Climate Adaptation

Primary Investigator(s): W. Travis
Other Investigator(s): A. McCurdy, T. Shrum
Stakeholders: Ranchers and others associated with the range livestock industry (e.g., ag extension specialists)

Development of simulation models and decision tools for drought 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. In this year, we put all of our focus on the western range livestock industry, aka ranching, the most extensive agricultural system in the American West. With assistance from the USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub, the WWA team finished building, and distributed two versions of the Drought Ranch Insurance Response (DRIR) model. Both include modules that calculate ranch outcomes with and without the USDA’s forage and range insurance, an index insurance product linked to NOAA’s gridded precipitation product. The spreadsheet version, which is easiest for producers to use, can be downloaded, along with instructions, from the WWA’s “Understanding and Monitoring Drought” webpages. An on-line version, written in the R coding language, was demonstrated on a NIDIS-sponsored webinar in May which also provided the URL for running it online. Next steps are to invite producers and others to test the drought response model via agricultural conferences and publications. The next research steps are to submit a paper describing the model for peer-reviewed publication and to set-up experimental trials to gather sufficient run samples to test hypotheses about the role of drought forecasts, insurance, and market conditions in rancher decision-making in the face of drought.

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Evaluation and Usability of Stakeholder-Oriented Science


Mapping Climate Services

Primary Investigator(s): E. McNie, A. Meadow (CLIMAS, University of Arizona)
Stakeholders:  NOAA Western Regional Collboration 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 developed a database of climate-service organizations in the NOAA West region as a first attempt to bridge the gap between producers and users. 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 is a searchable database that is open and usable by the public as well as a report that provides preliminary analysis of the findings from the database.

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