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Atmospheric Sciences & Global Change
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January 2014

The Long and Short of Modeling Water Resources Management

A new module for Earth system models fills the gap across scales

Diablo Lake Washington
PNNL scientists developed a water resource management model that takes usage data from reservoirs such as Diablo Lake in Washington State to help model and understand human influence on Earth’s environment. Enlarge Image.

Results: Earth system models track all forms of water and its movement through atmosphere, land and ocean systems. However, the significant effect of reservoirs on the amount of freshwater evaporated into the atmosphere and flowing to the oceans has been neglected. Existing water management models take either an expansive global view that can miss important details or narrow in on specific water reservoirs and lose critical trends across regions and time periods. Filling the gap between the two approaches, scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory designed a water management model that can provide input to an Earth system model by drawing its water data at the regional level.

Why It Matters:  It's much more than a drop in the bucket. Globally, as much as 15 percent of freshwater is withdrawn for drinking, growing food, producing power and other human activities. Failing to accurately depict these impacts on the water cycle affects the results from Earth system models, which are used to predict climate change and inform resource management and policy decisions. The team's approach simulates reservoir operations such as flood control, irrigation and water supply using release and storage information for each individual reservoir with a focus on long-term water flow and demand.

"Water integrates many processes in both the natural and human components of the Earth system," said Dr. Nathalie Voisin, the PNNL hydrologist who led the team. "Earth system models must accurately represent all branches of the hydrologic cycle—atmosphere, land, ocean, and human systems—including water and energy management, and socioeconomics."

Methods: The study team chose Washington State's Columbia River Regulation System as an example because of the area's many dams and reservoirs for generating electricity, irrigation, managing water flow, and serving as municipal water sources. The scientists first developed their new model apart from any Earth system model to ensure it was accurate on its own. It combines generic release and storage targets adjusted for each reservoir.  They then coupled it to a river transport model and added irrigation demand and other types of water use measured by the U.S. Geological Survey. The team validated the model's realistic representation of reservoir operations by showing that measurements taken in the field closely matched the predictions made by their model.

Their results showed promise for accurately simulating the regulated flow of water and withdrawal activities at the regional scale. The resulting model can be used to determine the impacts of water use and water management on regional and global climate and improve understanding of the mutual constraints between energy and water production and use.

What's Next? The next step is to couple this water management model with a land surface model and an integrated assessment model to simulate future water deficits as a result of changes in water supply and water demand.


Sponsor: This study was part of the Integrated Earth System Modeling (iESM) a collaborative project supported by U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science Biological and Environmental Research program's Earth System Modeling program. The Platform for Regional Integrated Modeling and Analysis (PRIMA) initiative, funded by PNNL's Laboratory Directed Research and Development program, supported the development of databases used in reservoir modeling and some analyses of the results.

Research Team: Nathalie Voisin, Hongyi Li, Duane Ward, Maoyi Huang, Mark Wigmosta, and L. Ruby Leung of PNNL.

Research Area: Climate & Earth Systems Modeling

Reference: Voisin N, H Li, D Ward, M Huang, M Wigmosta, and LR Leung. 2013. "On an Improved Sub-Regional Water Resources Management Representation for Integration into Earth System Models." Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 17:3605-3622. DOI:10.5194/hess-17-3605-2013

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