By Kayla Zacharias
Benét Duncan is a climate researcher, Managing Director of the Western Water Assessment, and CO LSEN advisory group member.
As the impacts of climate change intensify, arid regions across the globe are questioning how they can build resilient communities and water systems into the future – including Colorado. By researching snowpack, climate, and hydrology in the Mountain West and how to improve resilience in the system, the Western Water Assessment (WWA) is helping us answer those questions. WWA not only shares their findings with decision makers, but works with them to define their research questions.
Benét Duncan, the Managing Director at Western Water Assessment, started out as a climate assessment specialist. She’s been with WWA for four years now and has worked on countless projects that spurred real change in communities across the West.
In 2018 and 2019, WWA led community climate adaptation workshops in six communities throughout Colorado and Utah. Seven hours of the eight-hour workshop were spent learning from community members who shared their knowledge and talked through potential climate outcomes, how those might impact their community, and potential actions they could take to be more resilient.
“Several communities made new decisions regarding climate adaptation coming out of those workshops,” Duncan said. “In one community, the city manager increased the budget for the water and public works department to create an education and outreach program, with the goal of helping community members understand where their water comes from and what actions they can take to preserve it. Other communities made investment decisions that allowed them to increase water storage and infrastructure decisions to help them improve access to water.”
In mountain regions like Colorado, there’s one big factor that impacts how much water we’ll have throughout the year: snowpack.
“In Colorado and throughout the Mountain West, we have what’s called snowpack dominated water systems. We rely on snowpack as our natural reservoir for water and that slowly melts throughout the year,” said Duncan. “Everyone is really interested in snowpack here, especially because of all the droughts that we’ve been dealing with recently.”
WWA published a snowpack user guide in December 2020, and in the early months of 2021, they hosted a two-part webinar series that looked into what resources exist for snowpack data and information. The webinars also considered how the big forecasting bodies, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and NWS Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC), use snowpack monitoring data to produce their water supply forecast.
Research at the Western Water Assessment not only helps to determine how we access water, but how we manage the water resources we have. Recently, their work influenced a new rule on dam safety. WWA worked with collaborators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Colorado Division of Water Resources to develop a report that helped dam safety offices better understand how to integrate climate change impacts into dam safety regulations. The project won a CO-Labs Governor’s Award for high impact research.
In addition to all of the incredible work she’s done at WWA, Duncan is a CO LSEN advisory group member, and she sees a lot of overlap between the mission of the two organizations.
“Beyond our respective goals and missions, there’s an increasing need and appetite from decision makers for climate information. It’s becoming common for us to experience wildfires, drought, and public health impacts from climate change; policymakers, decision makers and natural resource managers increasingly want climate information to help inform their decisions. That’s way more than any one program can do, so I think it’s really fantastic that the Local Science Engagement Network is here now to help fill that need.”