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Water availability for the Western United States--Key scientific challenges

November 21, 2005

In the Western United States, the availability of water has become a serious concern for many communities and rural areas. Near population centers, surface-water supplies are fully appropriated, and many communities are dependent upon ground water drawn from storage, which is an unsustainable strategy. Water of acceptable quality is increasingly hard to find because local sources are allocated to prior uses, depleted by overpumping, or diminished by drought stress. Some of the inherent characteristics of the West add complexity to the task of securing water supplies. The Western States, including the arid Southwest, have the most rapid population growth in the United States. The climate varies widely in the West, but it is best known for its low precipitation, aridity, and drought. There is evidence that the climate is warming, which will have consequences for Western water supplies, such as increased minimum streamflow and earlier snowmelt events in snow-dominated basins. The potential for departures from average climatic conditions threatens to disrupt society and local to regional economies. The appropriative rights doctrine governs the management of water in most Western States, although some aspects of the riparian doctrine are being incorporated. The 'use it or lose it' provisions of Western water law discourage conservation and make the reallocation of water to instream environmental uses more difficult. The hydrologic sciences have defined the interconnectedness of ground water and surface water, yet these resources are still administered separately by most States. The definition of water availability has been expanded to include sustaining riparian ecosystems and individual endangered species, which are disproportionately represented in the Western States. Federal reserved rights, common in the West because of the large amount of Federal land, exist with quite senior priority dates whether or not water is currently being used. A major challenge for water users in the West is that these reserved rights may supersede other existing users. The minimum amount of water required, however, to sustain native peoples, a riparian system, or an endangered species eventually will need to be known in order to manage the available water supply. Periodic inventory and assessment of the amounts and trends of water available in surface water and ground water are needed to support water management. There is a widespread perception that the amount of available water is diminishing with time. This and other perceptions about water availability should be replaced by objective data and analysis. Some data are presented here for the major Western rivers that show that flows are not decreasing in most streams and rivers in the West. Systematic information is lacking to make broad assessments of ground-water availability, but available data for specific aquifers indicate that these aquifers are being depleted, especially near population centers. The complexity added to the issue of Western water availability by these and other factors gives rise to a significant role of science. Science has played a role in support of Western water development from the beginning, and the role has evolved and changed over time as society's values have changed. In this report, the role of science is discussed in three phases: (1) development and construction, (2) consequences and environmental awareness, and (3) sustainability. The development and construction phase includes some historical accounting of water development in the West and shows how some precedents set in those early days are still applied today. 

Publication Year 2005
Title Water availability for the Western United States--Key scientific challenges
DOI 10.3133/cir1261
Authors Mark Theodore Anderson, Lloyd H. Woosley
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Circular
Series Number 1261
Index ID cir1261
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization U.S. Geological Survey