Colorado State Researchers Create Drought Lab, Take Leadership Role in Providing Drought-Related Information

As Colorado’s drought worsens, the state’s water supplies diminish and entire communities are left uncertain about how to deal with prolonged dry conditions, Colorado State University researchers are responding by establishing DroughtLab.

Building on renowned water and climatological research programs, the new collaborative drought analysis and management laboratory redirects current resources and establishes new studies to provide information to government leaders, businesses and individuals as they plan for and manage drought events.

"Severe Colorado droughts, such as the one we are currently experiencing, have occurred in the past and will happen again in the future. With increased population along the Front Range, our vulnerability to severe drought has greatly increased," said atmospheric science Professor Roger Pielke Sr., director of the Colorado Climate Center and co-director of DroughtLab. "Through DroughtLab, Colorado State researchers are leading the state in preparing for and managing drought by responding to the information needs of local and state governments, industries and individuals."

DroughtLab is a joint initiative of Colorado State’s Water Center and the Climate Center, bringing together the knowledge of more than 100 researchers from 22 academic departments at Colorado State and labs and departments at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Disciplines contributing to DroughtLab’s efforts include atmospheric science, civil engineering, watershed sciences, soil and crop sciences, rangeland science, forest science, ecology, sociology, political science, and agricultural and resource economics.

DroughtLab serves as a framework for researchers to collaborate and develop encompassing information that helps water managers reduce Colorado’s vulnerability to drought. Outreach education, statewide Cooperative Extension efforts, technology transfer and the communication of drought knowledge to state and local officials and the general public will compliment the lab’s research efforts. Research will be conducted on campus and across the state at the university’s Agricultural Experiment Station research centers located in communities throughout Colorado.

DroughtLab researchers are initially focusing on three key areas:

  • Drought analysis and characterization: Researchers are characterizing the initiation, evolution, termination and recurrence of drought and developing new methods for analyzing various types of drought.
  • Drought impacts and consequences: Researchers are identifying techniques for impact assessment and evaluation of consequences of extreme drought, including ecological and socio-economic impacts, and consequences to cities, rural communities, agriculture and industry.
  • Drought response and management: Researchers are developing new technological options for planning and managing the impacts of extreme drought, including analyses of water resources systems, the development of water supply forecasting techniques, developing associated policy, mobilization of institutions and mitigation options that could be useful for local, state and national level decision makers.

"DroughtLab scientists will collaborate with local, state, national and international agencies in researching, developing and applying new research and technology to analyze and mitigate the effects of extreme droughts," said Jose Salas, Colorado State professor of civil engineering and co-director of DroughtLab. "The collaboration’s participants will also address the ecological and socio-economic impacts of drought and its consequences on agriculture, cities, rural communities and industry."

Through research efforts and information dissemination strategies, directors of DroughtLab plan to increase scientific understanding about the mechanisms that control the dynamics of drought, develop new methods and procedures for characterizing drought and identify improved techniques for assessing the impact of extreme drought. The team also plans to develop new technological options for planning and managing extreme drought as well as establishing associated policies and decision-support strategies.

The DroughtLab collaboration will host research workshops, conferences and training courses and publishing manuals, guidelines and books. Colorado State Cooperative Extension, with outreach offices in 54 Colorado counties, will provide outlets for the transfer of new technology and research-based best practices to water managers, water policy makers and water users at the community, business and individual household levels. Additionally, university-based drought information Web site sources are being examined to ensure a broader overview of drought-related research and education products.

Current DroughLab research and community projects include:

  • a study about effective water management responses to the 2002 drought by Colorado agricultural producers,
  • a study of the response of federal rangeland managers to the 2002 drought conditions,
  • co-sponsoring a statewide drought conference for water managers,
  • a drought-related precipitation analysis,
  • an analysis of the recurrence of extreme drought,
  • an in-depth study of the hydrology and erosion of burned watersheds during drought, and
  • an investigation of the impact of forest fires on erosion.

Proposed projects include:

  • an analysis of Colorado’s drought characteristics,
  • a study of the accuracy of water supply forecasting during drought conditions,
  • an in-depth analysis regarding drought and the related probabilities of large fires in Colorado.

"Drought is a recurring phenomenon that is complex to characterize, difficult to predict and can have devastating impacts," said Robert Ward, director of the university’s Water Center and the Colorado Water Resources Research Institute. "The DroughtLab’s research into understanding the underlying physical and statistical mechanisms that control the dynamics of drought, as well as its impacts on the environment and the socio-economic infrastructure, will prove extremely helpful in assisting government officials and individuals to make more informed decisions."

The Colorado Climate Center, housed in Colorado State’s Department of Atmospheric Science, provides information and expertise on weather and climate patterns for the state of Colorado. The center’s Web site at provides access to current drought, weather and other climate data. The Water Center brings together water-related researchers from 22 different departments at Colorado State to form a brain trust of scientists focused on water resources. Information about the Water Center can be found on the Web at Colorado State’s Department of Civil Engineering houses one of the world’s most respected programs focusing on hydrology, water planning and management, drought analysis and other water-related research. Additional information about the civil engineering department is on the Web at