Millennial-length records of streamflow from three major upper colorado river tributaries

Stephen T. Gray, Jeffrey J. Lukas, Connie A. Woodhouse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Drought, climate change, and shifting consumptive use are prompting a widespread reassessment of water availability in the Upper Colorado River basin. Here, we present millennial-length records of water year (October-September) streamflow for key Upper Colorado tributaries: the White, Yampa, and Little Snake Rivers. Based on tree rings, these records represent the first paleohydrological reconstructions from these subbasins to overlap with a series of Medieval droughts (∼ad 800 to 1300). The reconstructions show marked interannual variability imbedded in nonstationary behavior over decadal to multidecadal time scales. These reconstructions suggest that, even in a millennial context, gaged flows from a handful of years (e.g., 1977 and 2002) were extremely dry. However, droughts of much greater duration and magnitude than any in the instrumental record were regular features prior to 1900. Likewise these reconstructions point to the unusual wetness of the gage period, and the potential for recent observations to paint an overly optimistic picture of regional water supplies. The future of the Upper Colorado River will be determined by a combination of inherent hydroclimatic variability and a broad range of human-induced changes. It is then essential that regional water managers, water users, and policy makers alike consider a broader range of hydroclimatic scenarios than is offered by the gage record alone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)702-712
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of the American Water Resources Association
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2011


  • Drought
  • Little Snake River
  • Paleoclimate
  • Paleohydrology
  • Tree rings
  • Upper Colorado River basin
  • White River
  • Yampa River

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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