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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Irrigation in California's Central Valley strengthens the southwestern U.S. water cycle

  • Author(s): Lo, Min-Hui
  • Famiglietti, James S
  • et al.

Published Web Location Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License

Characterizing climatological and hydrological responses to agricultural irrigation continues to be an important challenge to understanding the full impact of water management on the Earth's environment and hydrological cycle. In this study, we use a global climate model, combined with realistic estimates of regional agricultural water use, to simulate the local and remote impacts of irrigation in California's Central Valley. We demonstrate a clear mechanism that the resulting increase in evapotranspiration and water vapor export significantly impacts the atmospheric circulation in the southwestern United States, including strengthening the regional hydrological cycle. We also identify that irrigation in the Central Valley initiates a previously unknown, anthropogenic loop in the regional hydrological cycle, in which summer precipitation is increased by 15%, causing a corresponding increase in Colorado River streamflow of ~30%. Ultimately, some of this additional streamflow is returned to California via managed diversions through the Colorado River aqueduct and the All-American Canal.

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