Going With the Flow of Data

Going With the Flow of Data

Scientific data like that being produced by UC Merced researchers will ultimately provide a means to a more sustainable future.

“Going with the Flow of Data” (pages 21-25) UC Merced Magazine, Fall 2015: Celebrating a Decade of Excellence

California, long envied by the rest of the country for its climate, beauty and natural resources, is four years into a drought and in the midst of a water crisis a century in the making.

With Gov. Jerry Brown imposing mandatory water restrictions on residents, the state’s staggeringly complex water woes have taken the sheen off at least some of the California dream.

But researchers at UC Merced are trying to unravel the Gordian knot that is California water through a new inter-campus initiative.

The new UC Water Security and Sustainability Research initiative, known as UC Water, is led by UC Merced professors Roger Bales and Joshua Viers and involves researchers from other campuses. One of the goals is to amalgamate research on infrastructure, institutions and information — what Bales calls the three Is of water security.

Researchers want to integrate information on headwaters and groundwater to see how changes affect the downstream groundwater. UC Water also intends to provide information and offer ideas that could be implemented by resource managers for a more secure water future for the state and beyond.

One of the biggest questions is how the state, with a population increasing by a million people a year, can meet insatiable demand for water for irrigation for food production, for recreation, for fisheries and more. Demand peaks when it’s hot, which is not, typically, when it rains.

Meeting demand is only more difficult as the climate warms, Viers said.

“We don’t live in a place of continuous plenty,” Viers said.

By gathering data showing where the water is, and where and how much water is needed, Viers and his colleagues hope to help put the state’s water and how it’s managed on a sustainable path.

As Viers said, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

The causes of California’s water crisis are many, from a lack of naturally occurring snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and drained underground aquifers to an oversubscribed and antiquated water-rights legal system.

The ramifications are numerous as well.

Drier conditions can result in more frequent and severe wildfires. Developed land and natural habitat is much more susceptible to flooding when it rains. And millions of homeowners, farmers and other citizens are forced to pay higher and higher prices for utilities and irrigation systems.

“Opportunities exist for all sectors to better use and manage water,” Viers said.

Fortunately, there are a multitude of technological and political solutions to the problems that are worth pursuing. UC Water’s role is to explore those solutions and their feasibility.


Part of the problem is that what needs to be managed is not measuring up.

“Typically there would be feet of snowpack. Last year, we had just a couple inches,” Bales said. “That’s a problem, because the Sierra Nevada is where a lot of our water comes from.”

In fact, an estimated 60 percent of the water stored in California’s reservoirs — many of which are under capacity or empty — comes from the snowpack that (ideally) accumulates each winter and becomes runoff in the spring and summer.

Professor Martha Conklin and Bales are among those who study the changing snowpack and rising snowlines in California’s mountains.
Bales, also director of UC Merced’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute (SNRI), said thinning the forests of thirsty younger trees and undergrowth could free up runoff to replenish underground aquifers.

Conklin is the lead water researcher on the seven-year Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP). Along with Bales and others at UC Merced, she has studied the issue in the American River Basin and in forests near Yosemite and Lake Tahoe.

The experiments SNAMP used were designed to evaluate forest response to strategically placed “treatments,” or thinnings, focused on reducing the risk of high-intensity fires.

But the researchers also suspect that restoring forests to the densities that were standard a century ago — before fire suppression measures were put in place — could yield up to 1 million acre-feet of water across the Sierra Nevada in a normal-to-wet year.

“Using models calibrated by years of data, we were really pleased with the results, because they showed that even with a light treatment — removing 10 percent to 15 percent of the biomass — we actually did have measurable increases in water responses,” Conklin said. “That’s exciting because it means that where you treat makes a big difference.”

The researchers don’t propose ridding forests of all the undergrowth, rather restoring sustainable forest densities, which would also help control the intensity of wildfires.

“Not only are low-intensity fires necessary to forest health, they are managed differently,” Bales said. “Land managers’ funds are often limited because of the resources expended in fighting high-intensity fires and their subsequent cleanups. They don’t have enough resources for restoration projects.”

The issue requires further monitoring and verification in order to guide investments in forest management by the water community.

Learn more about water research led by Joshua Viers and Roger Bales at CITRIS at UC Merced in the Anniversary issue of UC Merced Magazine.