Pulwarty, R. S., and T. S. Melis, 2001: Climate extremes and adaptive management on the Colorado River: Lessons from the 1997-1998 ENSO event. J. Environ. Manage., 63, 307-324.


The Colorado River system exhibits the characteristics of a heavily over-allocated or `closing water system'. In such systems, development of mechanisms to allow resource users to acknowledge interdependence and to engage in negotiations and agreements becomes necessary. Recently, after a decade of deliberations and environmental assessments, the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program (GCDAMP) was established to monitor and analyze the effects of dam operations on the Grand Canyon ecosystem and recommend adjustments intended to preserve and enhance downstream physical, cultural and environmental values. The Glen Canyon Dam effectively separates the Colorado into its lower and upper basins. Dam operations and adaptive management decisions are strongly influenced by variations in regional climate. This paper focuses on the management of extreme climatic events within the Glen and Grand Canyon Region of the Colorado River. It illustrates how past events (both societal and physical) condition management flexibility and receptivity to new information. The types of climatic information and their appropriate entry points in the annual cycle of information gathering and decision-making (the `hydro-climatic decision calendar') for dam operations and the adaptive management program are identified. The study then describes how the recently implemented program, lessons from past events, and new climate information on the Colorado River Basin, facilitated responses during the major El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event of 1997-1998. Recommendations are made for engaging researchers and practitioners in the effective use of climatic information in similar settings where the decision stakes are complex and the system uncertainty is large.