Last week, folks from the state Department of Water Resources trudged out into designated spots in the Sierra, pushed steel poles into the snow and gave Californians the promising news that the snow-water content is above normal so far this winter and significantly better than last year.
Early each month through April, there will be follow-up snow surveys, and the results will influence how much water is released for irrigation in some areas, how much water is kept in various reservoirs and whether cities that depend on this water kick in moderate or serious conservation plans for the rest of the year.
This is the snow measuring system that has been used for 50 years or more. It's traditional, predictable and reliable in a limited way. It's not precise and can be quickly made out of date by a warm spell or a massive cold storm. As water experts will point out and as we know from experience, a promising snowpack report one month can change dramatically in the weeks before the next one.
Researchers at UC Merced are heavily involved in efforts to measure snow and other precipitation in the mountains on a real time basis, along with information as to the exact snow line and the soil moisture levels in the forest and mountain meadows.
These measurements rely on satellite data, laser images from aircraft and ground-based equipment that provides continual images and data. The current research is focused on the American River Basin. An earlier project, still under way, was in the southern Sierra. A video explaining that work is available at https://czo.ucmerced.edu/research.html.
Roger Bales, a professor of engineering and director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced, described the work in a commentary that appeared in The Bee last month. He summarized their effort with this statement:
"Our goal should be to reduce prediction errors by at least 50 percent. We can produce this improvement by investing in thousands of low-cost, reliable sensors over hundreds of square miles in the Sierra, from the Sacramento and Feather River basins to the Kern River."
Earlier in the fall, Bales spoke at a Modesto Chamber of Commerce forum on water issues. While others are arguing who most needs water for what purposes, Bales and the research institute are weighing in from an academic but practical perspective what is most essential for good debate and good decisions is accurate information about water and what's available and when. Climate change will change the conventional thinking and conventional practices.
Some of the research done at UC campuses is on subjects beyond the grasp of the average Californian, important but bewilderingly complicated. This research on water incorporates technical terms and techniques, to be sure, but the bottom line easily translates into what's important in our daily lives.
Accurate and the most up-to-date information will allow irrigation districts and other water agencies to better manage their reservoirs, to reduce the likelihood of flooding and to make sure water is used most efficiently for urban, agriculture and environmental purposes. It's exciting to know that the San Joaquin Valley campus of the University of California is a major player on this critical subject.