Climate-driven disturbances in the San Juan River sub-basin of the Colorado River

Bennett, Katrina E.; Bohn, Theodore J.; Solander, Kurt; McDowell, Nathan G.; Xu, Chonggang; Vivoni, Enrique; Middleton, Richard S.

Accelerated climate change and associated forest disturbances in the southwestern USA are anticipated to have substantial impacts on regional water resources. Few studies have quantified the impact of both climate change and land cover disturbances on water balances on the basin scale, and none on the regional scale. In this work, we evaluate the impacts of forest disturbances and climate change on a headwater basin to the Colorado River, the San Juan River watershed, using a robustly calibrated (Nash–Sutcliffe efficiency 0.76) hydrologic model run with updated formulations that improve estimates of evapotranspiration for semi-arid regions. Our results show that future disturbances will have a substantial impact on streamflow with implications for water resource management. Our findings are in contradiction with conventional thinking that forest disturbances reduce evapotranspiration and increase streamflow. In this study, annual average regional streamflow under the coupled climate–disturbance scenarios is at least 6–11 % lower than those scenarios accounting for climate change alone; for forested zones of the San Juan River basin, streamflow is 15–21 % lower. The monthly signals of altered streamflow point to an emergent streamflow pattern related to changes in forests of the disturbed systems. Exacerbated reductions of mean and low flows under disturbance scenarios indicate a high risk of low water availability for forested headwater systems of the Colorado River basin. These findings also indicate that explicit representation of land cover disturbances is required in modeling efforts that consider the impact of climate change on water resources.

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Bennett, Katrina E. / Bohn, Theodore J. / Solander, Kurt / et al: Climate-driven disturbances in the San Juan River sub-basin of the Colorado River. 2018. Copernicus Publications.

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