UC researchers: Sensors to predict snowmelt, increase water efficiency

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comAugust 16, 2012 

A new project in the American River Basin could significantly increase California's water-use efficiency as climate change looms.

Researchers at UC Merced and Berkeley have spearheaded a research project that uses carefully placed wireless sensors to collect real-time data on the amount of water stored in mountain snow.

"It's to reduce uncertainly," said Robert Rice, a scientist with UC Merced. "And that's pretty vital given the scenarios we might be facing in the future.

Concerns around global warming have given the project urgency as traditional methods of measuring snowpack and predicting runoff could become less accurate due to rising temperatures and irregular weather patterns.

"What we're doing is solving a problem that is starting to occur," he said. "We're getting the infrastructure in place prior to it being a real problem."

If successful, the network of sensors will be able to transmit up-to-date data, allowing interested parties to better predict the timing and magnitude of mountain snowmelt.

This information could translate into significant monetary savings for hydropower projects, public utilities and the farming industry, Rice said.

The project will provide research data for scientists such as Martha Conklin. A UC Merced researcher with the project, Conklin is looking at ways to improve mountain runoff for environmental and agricultural interests.

"We're very interested in where we get the most snow and why, because forest management's going to improve the amount of snow accumulation," she said.

Concerns over shrinking snowpack have motivated Conklin and others to look into techniques that can increase the amount of snow that collects in the mountains during the winter.

Managing the space between trees could significantly boost the snowpack that feeds rivers during the spring and increase the water available for agriculture and other purposes, Conklin said.

"If trees are less dense, more snow can accumulate on the ground, and if the trees are at the right density, they can shade the snow on the ground," she said.

The data collection program started in 2004 with smaller pilot projects in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks and later on the Kings River.

However, this will be the researchers' first large-scale attempt to collect detailed snowpack data.

"We're going from monitoring a 5-square-kilometer area to a 5,000-square-kilometer area in one big jump," Conklin said.

"It's a full-basin hydrologic observatory and a prototype water information system."

The National Science Foundation granted $2 million for the monitoring system and its installation. The raw data could be available to the public and others online as early as January.

Report Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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