Understanding the role of regional water connectivity in mitigating climate change impacts on surface water supply stress in the United States
Surface water supply for a watershed relies on local water generated from precipitation and water connections with other watersheds. These connections are confined by topography and infrastructure, and respond diversely to stressors such as climate change, population growth, increasing energy and water demands. This study presents an integrative simulation and evaluation framework that incorporates the natural and anthropogenic water connections (i.e., stream flows, inter-basin water transfers, water withdrawals and return flows) among the 2099 8-digit Hydrologic Unit Code (HUC-8) watersheds across the conterminous United States. The framework is then applied to investigate the potential impacts of changes in climate and water use on regional water availability and water stress (the ratio of demand to supply). Our projections suggest that highly water-stressed areas may expand from 14% to 18% and the stressed population would increase from 19% to 24% by 2070-2099. Climate-change mitigation practices (e.g., energy structure reform, technology innovation) could largely offset these trends by reducing demand and enhancing supply. At the watershed scale, the spatially inhomogeneous responses to future changes suggest that regional water connectivity could significantly buffer the potential stress escalations due to the redistribution of water resources and diverse changes in consumptive uses and water supplies in different source areas. However, the detrimental future changes (e.g., depleting river discharges, larger demands of water withdrawal) may aggravate conflicts over water rights among regions and challenge our current water infrastructure system. This study provides new insights into the critical role of regional water connectivity in water supply security, and highlights the increasing need for integrated monitoring and management of water resources at various spatial levels in a changing world.