CO report on new tech improves water management

A new report from the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State University outlines how various emerging technologies can help water managers, landowners and policymakers improve western water management in the face of severe, ongoing drought.

A new report from the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State University outlines how various emerging technologies can help water managers, landowners and policymakers improve western water management in the face of severe, ongoing drought.

The report found that many emerging technologies can enhance the monitoring, management, conservation and allocation of water. The technologies ranged from blockchain and satellite telemetry to improved sensors and advanced aerial observation platforms.

The release of “Emerging Technologies to Improve Water Resource Management in Colorado” comes amidst a growing water crisis in the West. The United States has witnessed the worst drought in 1,200 years. There has also been a crackdown from the federal government on the annual water allocation in the Colorado River.

“Water touches everyone in the West,” said Kat Demaree, co-author and co-editor of the report and project manager at the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering at CU Boulder. “With drought and increasing desertification, it’s becoming a pressing issue to better understand how we can manage the water we have and better work together as a community.”

The report, which was triggered by the legislative passage of HB21-1268 in 2021, allowed experts at the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering at CU Boulder and Colorado Water Center at CSU to conduct extensive stakeholder interviews and surveys across the state and analyse emerging technologies that could assist in various factors of water management. The report also contains eight case studies from expert co-authors highlighting potential technologies to address the issues. These case studies covered technological issues including higher resolution imaging and digital management of water rights.

The final report will be presented to the Water Resources Review Committee at the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference in Steamboat Springs on Aug. 24, 2022.

Technology for today and tomorrow

The researchers first examined the present landscape of water technology. They conducted interviews to find out what could help with real, on-the-ground problems for Colorado stakeholders. The researchers spoke with various water managers and experts statewide, including state legislators, Indigenous community leaders and agricultural producers. They discovered technological gaps in monitoring groundwater use, snowpack modelling, streamflow prediction and water rights trading and transactions.

The interviews informed a survey sent to a broader audience across sectors. Those sectors included mountain and urban residents, conservancy and municipal districts, academic experts, landowners, senators, and more. Those responses generated a concise picture of the current issues and potential emerging technology solutions.

The main challenges facing water stakeholders across the state were not surprising. Drought, wildfire, forest management, population growth and increased water demand are well-known. Many of the solutions detailed in the report provided better, more reliable or more affordable ways to gather data. That data collection could improve water management, conservation or allocation practices.

For example, a startup out of Denver conducts advanced aerial observation using microballoons in the stratosphere. The goal was to achieve low-cost, high-resolution surveying of changes to entire watersheds. No drone license is required for this approach.

In addition, the report found that better watershed management dashboards could optimise economic and agricultural decisions in Southern Colorado. An online water rights and transactions platform could increase transparency and accessibility for water users along the Arkansas River.

How water management has changed in the digital age

Storing digital water rights through the blockchain may also become important for water management. It could improve the fluidity, transparency and effectiveness of transactions for water users in Colorado by acting as a digital ledger to store people’s water rights. Co-authored by the Colorado Water Trust and Deloitte Consulting LLP, this section discussed the potential opportunities and challenges of creating a digital future for water.

“Using accurate and sophisticated data models to monitor the allocation, use and quality of water systems in the West and across the United States can help transform the country’s conservation and sustainability efforts,” said Rana Sen, managing director, Deloitte Consulting LLP and the sustainability, climate and equity leader in Deloitte’s government and public services practice. “Working closely with CU Boulder, we look forward to building on this important research and deploying several data-driven digital platforms that can help solve the increasingly complex water challenges posed by the climate crisis.”

In April, Deloitte and CU Boulder launched the Climate Innovation Collaboratory to translate cutting-edge climate research and data into meaningful climate solutions for federal, state and local government agencies and communities.

Where to from here with Colorado water management

The report also addresses why these solutions are not already in place. The main barriers to adoption include cost, reliability, equipment durability, and ease of use. Wind or cold temperature could damage expensive monitoring equipment. Technology that requires training may not be accessible to all stakeholders.

Water problems in the west are complex and ongoing. At the same time, the authors are optimistic that stakeholders will use the report to create innovative solutions. They also hope the information helps spur additional funding and research into these areas.

“Water can be framed as sometimes being divisive,” said Demaree. “It can be a tension between different communities, but there is so much hope in our conversations, and many people want to work together on this issue.”

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