OWF Initiative – Sustainable Natural River Systems

“A river is more than an amenity, it is a treasure. It offers a necessity of life that must be rationed among those who have power over it.”

– Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Near Adams Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park, east of Grand Lake, Colorado.  Photo by Steve Malers

Near Adams Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park, east of Grand Lake, Colorado. Photo by Steve Malers

The OWF initiative for Sustainable Natural River Systems seeks to use technology and information to maintain and enhance natural river systems while considering other water demands.   Rivers are the lifeblood of nature, civilization, and commerce, and historically are at the center of conflict over natural resources.  The OWF is attempting to increase access to data and information in order to improve transparency on complex water issues and encourage interest-based dialogue.  Below are examples of how OWF is providing tools to support natural river systems.

Understanding Water Requirements of Natural River Systems

Natural systems require sufficient flow rates and patterns for natural ecosystems to remain diverse and resilient.  States in the Western US take different approaches to ensuring environmental flows.  For example, Colorado has implemented instream flow water rights under the prior appropriation doctrine.  However, the instream flow program was implemented in 1973 and most instream flow rights are junior to consumptive rights that can dry up a stream.  Consequently, instream flow rights provide limited protection and operating agreements between water users can have greater positive impact.  Other western states have enacted a variety of environmental protections, often initiated because of litigation.  The determination of required environmental flows representing patterns and flow rates to support various species is a topic of much research and debate.  However, quantifying environmental flows is a necessary step that provides the opportunity for municipal and agricultural water users to alter their operations to provide environmental flows.  OWF is supporting the effort to understand environmental water requirements and improve river systems:

  • OWF is developing open source software tools that analyze and visualize streamflow and other data to determine whether flows meet environmental flow requirements.
  • OWF is developing a “stream mile” representation of stream data, to indicate overlapping environmental attributes, instream flow right segments, conservation programs, impacts, and other data in order to understand environmental issues at a local level, with potential to scale to large areas.
  • How can environmental and recreational flow demands, which are often evaluated at daily or finer timescale, be considered in water supply analysis models, which often use a monthly or annual time step?

Understanding Changes in River Systems over Time

The previous section focused on determining environmental flows.  Due to the complexity and level of effort to determine environmental flows, organizations often evaluate trends in streamflow and other accessible data to evaluate whether conditions continue to degrade, in order to understand causes and need for action.  OWF specializes in developing software tools to analyze and visualize time series data, such as the TSTool software.   OWF efforts include:

  • Developing tools to automate analysis of many locations and related time series data for critical flow values and changes, thus simplifying detection of environmental issues.
  • Developing visualization tools to annotate data products with indicators of major events, such as floods, droughts, legislation, structural changes, etc.
  • Integrating data from various sources to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of organizations in analyzing environmental flow data.

Integrating Water Quantity and Water Quality Information

Software tools developed by the OWF have in the past focused on water quantity, due to the funding sources and project goals.  However, OWF is actively seeking funding to add support for water quality data in analysis tools.  Adding this functionality will allow water quantity and quality to be analyzed and visualized together and support discussion of complex issues.  In particular, water quality issues and regulation will increasingly impact water supply decisions.

Supporting Organizations with Data and Software Tools

The OWF is collaborating with government agencies and conservation organizations to improve data access and provide software tools to allow organizations to efficiently analyze environmental data.  This allows organizations to use more of their budget for environmental programs.  Using open data and tools also allows organizations to share data and analyses, thereby providing a shared platform for discussion.  The OWF welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with organizations to more effectively address complex water resources issues.