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Substantial Declines in Salinity Observed Across the Upper Colorado River Basin During the 20th Century, 1929–2019

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Salinity in the Colorado River Basin causes an estimated $300 to $400 million per year in economic damages in the United States. To inform and improve salinity-control efforts, this study quantifies long-term trends in salinity (dissolved solids) across the Upper Colorado River Basin (UCRB), including time periods prior to the construction of large dams and preceding the implementation of salinity-control projects. Weighted Regressions on Time, Discharge, and Season was used with data sets of dissolved-solids and specific-conductance measurements, collected as early as 1929, to evaluate long-term trends in dissolved-solids loads and concentrations in streams from 1929 to 2019 (n = 14). Results indicate that large, widespread, and sustained downward trends in dissolved-solids concentrations and loads occurred over the last 50–90 years. For 12 of the 14 stream sites with significant downward change, median declines of −38% (range of −14% to −57%) and −40% (range of −9 to −65%) were observed for flow-normalized concentration and load, respectively. Steepest rates of decline occurred from 1980 to 2000, coincident with the initiation of salinity-control efforts in the 1980s. However, there was a consistent slowing or reversing of downward trends after 2000 even though salinity-control efforts continued. Significant decreases in salinity occurred as early as the 1940s at some streams, indicating that, in addition to salinity-control projects, changes in land cover, land use, and/or climate substantially affect salinity transport in the UCRB. Observed dissolved-solids trends are likely the result of changes to watershed-related processes, not due to changes in the streamflow regime.




Rumsey, C. A., Miller, O., Hirsch, R. M., Marston, T. M., & Susong, D. D. (2021). Substantial Declines in Salinity Observed Across the Upper Colorado River Basin During the 20th Century, 1929–2019. Water Resources Research, 57(5).

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