Optimizing for Water Equity in the Colorado River Basin; Addressing Water Resources Needs of Indigenous Peoples in the Colorado River Basin

Baker, Erin, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Quinn, Julianne, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia
Seabrook, Bryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

The issue of large-scale water scarcity cannot be solved by politics, engineering or changes in social habits alone. The technical approach involves thinking about the Colorado River Basin systematically and rearranging the excess flows from some groups and delivering it to other underserved groups. The ideas of reducing water shortage frequencies and durations remain central to the goal from this perspective. When specifically thinking about indigenous communities in the basin, a deep dive is taken into the nature of their water use and needs. Understanding that communities value water in different ways, but all need the minimum levels for basic needs can help to see water resources from new perspectives.

The Colorado River Basin is experiencing water shortages of increasing severity and frequency. Due to the scale of the Colorado River Basin and the countless end users and ecosystems which rely on its water supply, these water shortages present a dire problem. If the Colorado River ran dry it would lead to a loss of $1.4 trillion in economic activity, not to mention the fatal impact on wildlife, Western populations, and environmental systems which depend on it for water. The project focuses on redesigning Lake Mead reservoir operations to support the Lower Colorado River Basin. The goal is to provide recommendations to improve the current reservoir operating rules in order to identify sustainable allocations of water for essential end users. The final water allocations will be fundamentally driven by the hydrological budget of the river system, but also by human and environmental needs both now and in the future. The project couples the Borg multi-objective optimization algorithm with the RiverWare river modeling tool to design alternative reservoir operating rules that balance the objectives of different end users. This work distinguishes itself from past optimization exercises by explicitly considering water equity and climate change. These objectives guide alternatives meant to reduce potential hardships to vulnerable users as a result of future shortages. From these alternatives, promising new operating rules are identified at Lake Mead for managing droughts both now and under future possible climate conditions. This work can inform the redesign of the Basin’s operating policies after the current Interim Guidelines expire at the end of 2025.

This research is aimed at addressing the existing water allocation, water usage, cultural value and politics involved with the indigenous relationship to water resources. The question driving the research is: “how have indigenous communities been disadvantaged through water resources and where are the areas in need of improved access?” The framework of technological politics is used to analyze how the existing water infrastructure has caused inequality between groups in the basin including native peoples, agriculture and other communities. The intention is to gain an understanding of what water resources needs in indigenous communities were not being met, the impact that this has, and the areas for improvements. It is important for the Science, Technology and Society and Civil Engineering fields to understand how the infrastructure they create (or don’t) can impact the quality of life of real groups of people. The value of water is quantified beyond the daily need, but also the value its presence has in the landscape and ecosystem. This value extends from maintaining indigenous landscape, to supporting ecosystems and native species, to the cultural value of naturally flowing rivers. From limited water access in people’s homes, to loss of jobs due to indigenous agriculture, water can have a larger impact on native communities than expected.

By working on these projects in tandem, the problem of indigenous water scarcity has been able to be approached from mathematical/systems and cultural/social perspectives. Knowledge of indigenous relationships with water has helped the capstone project to prioritize which users in the model to reduce water shortages and frequency of shortages to. The indigenous desire to preserve their environmental settings has also allowed the capstone project to have a byproduct of prioritizing native vegetation. These imbedded benefits of native water prioritization have also opened more doors to research within the STS realm.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Indigenous, Water Resources, Water Equity, Optimization

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering
Technical Advisor: Julianne Quinn
STS Advisor: Bryn Seabrook
Technical Team Members: Hania Abboud, Teagan Baiotto, Erin Baker, Christopher Weigand

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