Water Planning Under Climatic Uncertainty in Phoenix: Why We Need a New Paradigm

Patricia Gober, Craig W. Kirkwood, Robert Balling, Andrew W. Ellis, Stephanie Deitrick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Scopus citations


The uncertainties associated with global climate models pose substantial hurdles for urban water planning. Despite growing consensus among climatologists that the American Southwest is headed for a warmer and drier future, water planners in metropolitan Phoenix and elsewhere are reluctant to consider long-term climate change as a significant factor in increased risk of future water scarcity. A new paradigm for climate research and water planning is needed-one that is based on an assumption of uncertainty and a vision of multiple plausible futures, managing risk, and adaptive behaviors. To this end, we downscaled global climate models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third and Fourth Assessment Reports for the watersheds north of Phoenix and estimated changes in runoff using a hydrological model. Results then were used as inputs to WaterSim, an integrated simulation model of water supply and demand in Phoenix. The model simulated "what if" scenarios under varying policy decisions and future climates. Results of simulation experiments suggest that (1) current levels of per capita water consumption cannot be supported without unsustainable groundwater use under most climate model scenarios, (2) feasible reductions in residential water consumption allow the region to weather the most pessimistic of the climate projections, (3) delaying action reduces long-term sustainability of the groundwater resource under some climate scenarios, and (4) adaptive policy with appropriate monitoring to track groundwater provides warning that the need for use restrictions is approaching and avoids the need for drastic, ad hoc actions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)356-372
Number of pages17
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2010


  • Climate change
  • Decision making under uncertainty
  • Planning paradigm
  • Simulation modeling
  • Water resource management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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