Thirsty water table could shrink Colorado River flows, study says

By Jennifer Yachnin | 05/29/2024 04:14 PM EDT

Researchers at a Nevada institute examined how warming temperatures could affect groundwater supplies and surface flows.

East River in Gunnison County, Colorado

The East River in Gunnison County, Colorado. Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia

Warming temperatures in the Colorado River Basin could significantly reduce stream flows — already shrunk by decades of persistent drought — as fluctuating groundwater supplies soak up melting snowpack and precipitation, new research shows.

Researchers with the Desert Research Institute, part of the Nevada System of Higher Education, the U.S. Geological Survey and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, reported their findings in the May edition of the journal Nature Water.

The study, which focused on the East River in Gunnison County, Colorado, examined the impacts of rising temperatures and drought on groundwater levels and the resulting effect on stream flows in the Colorado River Basin’s headwaters region.


“Even with historically observed wet periods in the model, the groundwater can’t come back from a single dry water year under end-of-century warming,” said Rosemary Carroll, a hydrology researcher and the study’s lead author.