December 2, 2015--U.S. Geological Survey national water census: Colorado River Basin geographic focus area study (USGS)

The U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) concept of a national census (or accounting) of water resources has evolved over the last several decades as the Nation has experienced increasing concern over water availability for multiple competing uses. The implementation of a USGS National Water Census was described in the USGS 2007 science strategy document that identified the highest priority science topics for the decade 2007–17. In 2009, the SECURE Water Act (Public Law 111–11, subtitle F) authorized the USGS to create a Water Availability and Use Assess­ment Program for the Nation, and in 2012, the Department of the Interior WaterSMART initiative provided funding to begin implementation of the USGS National Water Census (NWC).

Generally, the USGS NWC approaches water-availability assessment in terms of a “water budget.” The water-budget approach seeks to better quantify the inflows and outflows of water, as well as the change in storage volume, both nationally and at a regional scale and, by doing so, provides critical information to managers and stakeholders responsible for making water-availability decisions. The NWC has two primary components: Topical Studies and Geographic Focus Area Studies. Topical Studies do research on methods that can provide nationwide estimates of particular water-budget components at the subwatershed scale. Some examples of NWC Topical Studies include estimation of streamflow at ungaged locations; periodic quantification of evapotranspiration; and water use related to development of unconventional oil and gas. These efforts are planned to include additional topics in the future. Geographic Focus Area Studies (FASs) assess water availability and use within a defined geographic area, typically a surface-water drainage basin, to increase the understanding of factors affecting water availability in the region. In the FASs, local stakeholder input helps the USGS identify what components of the water budget are in most need of additional understanding or quantification. Focus Area Studies are planned as 3-year efforts and, typically, three FASs are ongoing in different parts of the country at any given time.

The Colorado River Basin (CRB) and the Delaware and Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basins were selected by the Department of the Interior for the first round of FASs because of the perceived water shortages in the basins and potential conflicts over water supply and allocations. After gathering input from numerous stakeholders in the CRB, the USGS determined that surface­-water resources in the basin were already being closely monitored and that the most important scientific contribution could be made by helping to improve estimates of four water­-budget components: evapotranspiration losses, snowpack hydrodynamics, water­-use information, and the relative importance of groundwater discharge in supporting streamflow across the basin. The purpose of this fact sheet is to provide a brief summary of the CRB FAS results as the study nears completion. Although some project results are still in the later stages of review and publication, this fact sheet provides an overall description of the work completed and cites the publications in which additional information can be found.

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