Water Quality and Supply Impacts from Climate-Induced Insect Tree Mortality and Resource Management in the Rocky Mountain West

    It is currently estimated that over 4 million acres of forests in Colorado and Wyoming are dying due to the ongoing mountain pine beetle (MPB) infestation. The visual impact of dying and dead forests is stunning, but the invisible changes to the water cycle in vital watersheds in the Rocky Mountain west, including the Platte and Colorado River headwaters, may be a longer-lasting legacy of the MPB. The objective of this work is to determine potential water resource changes resulting from the MPB epidemic by defining and quantifying feedbacks between changes in climate, forested ecosystems altered by MPB impacts, biogeochemical processes and resource management practices. Beetle-killed trees will alter hydrologic and biogeochemical processes that govern water quantity and quality in forested headwater catchments. When coupled with natural resources management practices, these changes can potentially affect the ability to fulfill downstream water user demands and challenge ecological and human health needs. This project will directly address the social and physical science factors that govern water resource availability and quality under ecological and climate change. Concern about beetle-killed forest and watershed management is driving municipalities to implement water rate increases, and there is confusion about how to most effectively improve watershed health as it relates to this issue.

    Our highly interdisciplinary research team will merge field observations, laboratory experiments, integrated hydrologic models, and high-performance computing to increase our understanding and predictive capabilities for a critical problem facing society: changes to water availability and quality from an unprecedented change to our forests. This work will be complimented by place-based collaborative learning for impacted communities and workshops with water treatment municipalities. These workshops will be two-way and will serve to both to understand concerns and experiences with MPB impacts as well as communicate results. Integration of stakeholder perceptions and management responses will further inform and enrich our scientific analysis of water supply and contribute to the uniqueness of our research vision. In addition to stakeholder outreach and scenario planning, we will develop modules that convey key water resource issues to K-12 teachers and students as well as provide training, research and educational opportunities for undergraduate, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. Not only will this work provide an improved scientific basis for managing watershed ecosystems in the Platte and Colorado River basins, thus helping to ensure safe and reliable water resources to more than 30 million residential users and 1.8 million acres of irrigated agriculture, it will also improve our scientific and social understanding of the water supply and quantity challenges for MPB-impacted areas across the Rocky Mountain West.