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Implications of projected climate change for groundwater recharge in the western United States

  • Author(s): Meixner, T
  • Manning, AH
  • Stonestrom, DA
  • Allen, DM
  • Ajami, H
  • Blasch, KW
  • Brookfield, AE
  • Castro, CL
  • Clark, JF
  • Gochis, DJ
  • Flint, AL
  • Neff, KL
  • Niraula, R
  • Rodell, M
  • Scanlon, BR
  • Singha, K
  • Walvoord, MA
  • et al.
Abstract

© 2016 The Authors. Existing studies on the impacts of climate change on groundwater recharge are either global or basin/location-specific. The global studies lack the specificity to inform decision making, while the local studies do little to clarify potential changes over large regions (major river basins, states, or groups of states), a scale often important in the development of water policy. An analysis of the potential impact of climate change on groundwater recharge across the western United States (west of 100° longitude) is presented synthesizing existing studies and applying current knowledge of recharge processes and amounts. Eight representative aquifers located across the region were evaluated. For each aquifer published recharge budget components were converted into four standard recharge mechanisms: diffuse, focused, irrigation, and mountain-systems recharge. Future changes in individual recharge mechanisms and total recharge were then estimated for each aquifer. Model-based studies of projected climate-change effects on recharge were available and utilized for half of the aquifers. For the remainder, forecasted changes in temperature and precipitation were logically propagated through each recharge mechanism producing qualitative estimates of direction of changes in recharge only (not magnitude). Several key patterns emerge from the analysis. First, the available estimates indicate average declines of 10-20% in total recharge across the southern aquifers, but with a wide range of uncertainty that includes no change. Second, the northern set of aquifers will likely incur little change to slight increases in total recharge. Third, mountain system recharge is expected to decline across much of the region due to decreased snowpack, with that impact lessening with higher elevation and latitude. Factors contributing the greatest uncertainty in the estimates include: (1) limited studies quantitatively coupling climate projections to recharge estimation methods using detailed, process-based numerical models; (2) a generally poor understanding of hydrologic flowpaths and processes in mountain systems; (3) difficulty predicting the response of focused recharge to potential changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events; and (4) unconstrained feedbacks between climate, irrigation practices, and recharge in highly developed aquifer systems.

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