The western United States is a region long defined by water challenges. Climate change adds to those historical challenges, but does not, for the most part, introduce entirely new challenges; rather climate change is likely to stress water supplies and resources already in many cases stretched to, or beyond, natural limits. Projections are for continued and, likely, increased warming trends across the region, with a near certainty of continuing changes in seasonality of snowmelt and streamflows, and a strong potential for attendant increases in evaporative demands. Projections of future precipitation are less conclusive, although likely the northernmost West will see precipitation increases while the southernmost West sees declines. However, most of the region lies in a broad area where some climate models project precipitation increases while others project declines, so that only increases in precipitation uncertainties can be projected with any confidence. Changes in annual and seasonal hydrographs are likely to challenge water managers, users, and attempts to protect or restore environmental flows, even where annual volumes change little. Other impacts from climate change (e.g., floods and water-quality changes) are poorly understood and will likely be location dependent.
In this context, four iconic river basins offer glimpses into specific challenges that climate change may bring to the West. The Colorado River is a system in which overuse and growing demands are projected to be even more challenging than climate-change-induced flow reductions. The Rio Grande offers the best example of how climate-change-induced flow declines might sink a major system into permanent drought. The Klamath is currently projected to face the more benign precipitation future, but fisheries and irrigation management may face dire straits due to warming air temperatures, rising irrigation demands, and warming waters in a basin already hobbled by tensions between endangered fisheries and agricultural demands. Finally, California's Bay-Delta system is a remarkably localized and severe weakness at the heart of the region's trillion-dollar economy. It is threatened by the full range of potential climate-change impacts expected across the West, along with major vulnerabilities to increased flooding and rising sea levels.