Director’s Letter September 2022

Gothic road with fall colors

Prometheus unbound

RMBL research sits at the center of one of the most critical issues facing the western United States, water.

The Titan Prometheus defied the gods to bring fire to humans, a metaphor for the generation of knowledge and technology that enabled the emergence of civilization. But if fire birthed civilization, water will maintain it.

The history of the allocation of water from the Colorado River to the western states illustrates the value of science to understanding, predicting, and managing water. Supporting $1.4 trillion annually in economic activity, including 16 million jobs, effectively managing the Colorado River matters.

In 1922 Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and California signed the Colorado Compact, assigning water to each state. However, the compact assumed an annual flow of 16.4 million acre-feet of water. Since then, science has revealed that historically the Colorado River only averaged 13.5 million acre-feet per year. Updating the compact will require reducing overall allocations by 20%.

Science not only explains the problems of the past but reveals the future. With climate change, water flows will decrease. The US Geological Survey has determined that for every 1 C° increase in temperature we can expect a 9% decrease in flow in the Colorado River. With temperature increases of 1 to 5 C° by 2100, updated political agreements will need to address not just the 1922 misestimation of flows, but look to the future. Science will need to keep pace with a rapidly changing world.

The United States has demonstrated its ability to effectively take on hard scientific problems.  Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American Prometheus, led the Manhattan project, involving 130,000 people and thousands of scientists, to produce the first nuclear bomb. We employed science and technology to unleash a fire that simultaneously destroyed and maintained civilizations.

Echoes of such scientific coordination can be seen in Gothic today. Lawrence Berkeley Lab, a national laboratory organized through the Department of Energy, has created the Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area. From geologic mapping, to linking vegetation to evaporation and transpiration of water, to using isotopes to track the life cycle of snowflakes, to genomic sequencing to understand the microbial controls of nutrient processing and water quality, they are doing everything imaginable to create an integrated understanding of water.

These efforts have grown to include understanding not just water once it hits the ground, but through the Surface Atmosphere Integrated Laboratory, also how water comes out of the sky. And these efforts have grown to include additional federal agencies, such as NOAA’s SPLASH (Study of Precipitation, the Lower Atmosphere and Surface for Hydrometeorology) project, see adjoining article, which has sensors deployed around Gothic to understand how atmospheric and surface interactions mediate the flow of water.

How do winds move snow and heat in the mountains? What are the roles of aerosols, or small particles, in precipitation and snowmelt? What will be the feedbacks between fire, temperature, microclimate, and vegetation? Predicting the future of the western United States through the lens of water will require an integrated understanding of these systems. Collaborations by teams of scientists bridging scientific disciplines will serve as Prometheus unbound to maintain the quality of lives for humans across the planet!


More reading: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL