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Temporal variability in irrigated land and climate influences on salinity loading across the Upper Colorado River Basin, 1986-2017

January 19, 2024

Freshwater salinization is a growing global concern impacting human and ecosystem needs with impacts to water availability for human and ecological uses. In the Upper Colorado River Basin (UCRB), dissolved solids in streams compound ongoing water supply challenges to further limit water availability and cause economic damages. Much effort has been dedicated to understanding dissolved solid sources, transport, and management in the region, yet temporal variability in loading from key sources such as irrigated lands and the influence of climate on dissolved solids loading remains unknown. Quantifying the contributions and temporal variability of dissolved solids loads from irrigated lands may benefit salinity management efforts. This study applies a time-varying (dynamic) modeling approach to predict annual dissolved solids loads across the UCRB from 1986 through 2017. Between 66% and 82% of the total accumulated dissolved solids load in the basin is from groundwater (storage and baseflow). Our findings link climate, irrigation, and groundwater, and confirm large storage contributions that have declined slightly with time. Dissolved solids loads increase during wet periods and decrease during dry periods, although the relative contributions of different sources vary little with time. Irrigation enhances loading efficiency relative to unirrigated areas through runoff and groundwater, and can locally be a major source of dissolved solids where irrigation occurs. Results indicate that loads from irrigated areas increase when irrigated area and/or water available for runoff increase. Increased regional aridification over the study period may have contributed to decreasing stream salinity through both quicker surface runoff and lagged groundwater storage processes. Study results may be relevant to salinity management in arid environments where water availability is limited and where irrigation influences salinity loading to streams.

Publication Year 2024
Title Temporal variability in irrigated land and climate influences on salinity loading across the Upper Colorado River Basin, 1986-2017
DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/ad18dd
Authors Olivia L. Miller, Annie L. Putman, Richard A. Smith, Gregory E. Schwarz, Michael D. Hess, Morgan C. McDonnell, Daniel Jones
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Environmental Research Letters
Index ID 70251160
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Utah Water Science Center