The Colorado River Basin Needs New Water Management Solutions. UVA Researchers Are Trying to Help.

Megan May
a photo above the CO river basin looking out

Julianne Quinn, an assistant professor at UVA’s School of Engineering & Applied Science, and Peter Debaere, a professor at UVA’s Darden School of Business, are leading a project to help address water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin.

The Colorado River Basin is going through a period of reckoning, and two University of Virginia professors are searching for solutions. Since 2000, the basin has experienced the worst drought in recorded history, impacting water for drinking and agriculture. Julianne Quinn, an environmental systems engineer, and economist Peter Debaere are examining ways to improve water management in the basin to reduce the impacts of drought and facilitate sustainable economic growth.

The project, which received seed funding as a CoLab from UVA’s Environmental Institute, was recently awarded a three-year, $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to expand its work.

Engaging community partners and convening an interdisciplinary team, Quinn and Debaere will make recommendations to stakeholders based on their years of intense research. Their goal is to bring potential solutions regarding water stability and management in a region that is experiencing an extended historic drought that may be the new norm due to climate change-induced aridification.

As one of the most important river systems in the country, the Colorado River Basin supplies drinking water to 40 million people, fuels hydropower resources in eight states, is a crucial resource for 30 Tribal nations, and supports 16 million jobs and $1.4 trillion of the annual U.S. economy.

farmer working land on tractor near the river
Led by Julianne Quinn, an environmental systems engineer and economist Peter Debaere, both at the University of Virginia, a team is working to develop better management policies and principles to potentially mitigate the alarming rates of water reduction in the Colorado River Basin. (Photo contributed.)

Current management of the basin is based on an agreement dating back to 1922, the Colorado River Compact, which divided the river between the Upper Basin (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) and the Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona, and California). Each basin was allotted an equal share of water, and the Upper Basin could not deplete the flow of river beyond a certain level, to minimize the impact on the Lower Basin.

But years of overuse and drought have reduced water levels to alarming rates. Last year saw a fortunate increase in snowfall, which helped water levels and eased restrictions, but the precipitation is considered an exception, not a rule, and in the long run the relief isn’t enough to solve the water crisis. Water levels are exacerbated by climate change through conditions such as higher temperatures and changing vegetation at higher altitudes, where absorption of snowpack affects seasonal water run-off.

The current management agreement expires in 2026 and negotiations will have far-reaching impacts. Quinn and Debaere are preparing stakeholders for those discussions. 

With a focus on the Upper Basin, the duo has teamed up with Brian Richter, UVA adjunct professor and consultant from Sustainable Waters; Paul Block, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Mesfin Mekonnen, an environmental engineer at the University of Alabama; and Tianshu Li, an economist at Xi’an Jiatong-Liverpool University in China.

“It’s an interdisciplinary project,” Quinn said. “We have crop modelers who are estimating crop yields and economists who look at economic impacts and how we can create incentives for reducing water usage. Then as an engineer, I’m looking at how we can manage reservoirs conditioned on seasonal climate forecasts.”

team of researchers meet in the field
A team of researchers from UVA met with local leaders and community members in Colorado to gather a deeper understanding of land usage and water rights. (Photo contributed.)

Right now, researchers are integrating their understanding within their respective fields to outline the current impacts and challenges within the Colorado River Basin. Next, they will be proposing solutions for alternative management practices.

“We’re looking at the big picture,” Debaere said. “We’re not just looking at optimizing reservoir operations, for example. We’re looking at how we can optimize them while also being in sync with incentives and the economic interests of others. It’s a very ambitious, integrated goal.”

The analysis looks at both supply and demand when it comes to successful water management. On the supply side, Quinn is looking at how reservoir operations can be improved through forecast modeling. Shortages are triggered when reservoir levels fall to a certain elevation but waiting for those levels to fall (once drought conditions are reached) might be short-sighted. A better method, she said, could be using forecasting to dictate the amount of water released throughout the year.

Debaere is examining the demand side of water management to develop alternatives to usage. Some of those may include paying farmers to allow their land to rest for a set amount of time or prioritizing water use for more efficient, high-economic-yield crops.

“We’ve been spending much more time than anticipated on understanding how the water rights system in Colorado works,” he said. “We want to know if these water rights are properly defined and if every drop of water is covered. We want to know the community’s systems and needs so we can propose something that’s effective and sustainable.”

This past summer, Quinn, Debaere, and their collaborators spent a week in Colorado to meet with local farmers, water commissioners, researchers, dam operators, and lawyers. Bringing stakeholders to the table, Quinn explained, is an important part of the project.

“We were trying to understand context, concerns, discuss with them what we were working on, and get initial reactions that maybe would inform our future work,” she said. “Like all compromises, you’re not going to please everybody but learning the things that are important to the community and latching onto that is necessary for this type of work.”

The team hopes to return to Colorado next year to present their findings at the Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum at Colorado Mesa University.