Climate Change Effects on Water Allocations with Season Dependent Water Rights

Document Type


Journal/Book Title/Conference

Science of the Total Environment




Elsevier BV

Publication Date



Adaptation, Hydroclimate, Hydrology, Prior appropriation, Streamflow, Water allocation

First Page


Last Page



Appropriative water rights allocate surface water to competing users based on seniority. Often water rights vary seasonally with spring runoff, irrigation schedules, or other non-uniform supply and demand. Downscaled monthly Coupled Model Intercomparison Project multi-model, multi-emissions scenario hydroclimate data evaluate water allocation reliability and variability with anticipated hydroclimate change. California's Tuolumne watershed is a study basin, chosen because water rights are well-defined, simple, and include competing environmental, agricultural, and urban water uses representative of most basins. We assume that dedicated environmental flows receive first priority when mandated by federal law like the Endangered Species Act or hydropower relicensing, followed by senior agricultural water rights, and finally junior urban water rights. Environmental flows vary by water year and include April pulse flows, and senior agricultural water rights are 68% larger during historical spring runoff from April through June. Results show that senior water right holders receive the largest climate-driven reductions in allocated water when peak streamflow shifts from snowmelt-dominated spring runoff to mixed snowmelt- and rainfall-dominated winter runoff. Junior water right holders have higher uncertainty from inter-annual variability. These findings challenge conventional wisdom that water shortages are absorbed by junior water users and suggest that aquatic ecosystems may be disproportionally impaired by hydroclimate change, even when environmental flows receive priority.

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