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California and Drought: Sierra Nevada Groundwater Sources at Risk

Aug 21, 2015 03:08 PM EDT
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In and out of California's drought, the Sierra Nevada's snowpack plays a crucial role in groundwater recharge.

"The lower than historically normal snowfall in recent years is one environmental factor that has contributed to the current drought in California," Ryan Webb, Ph.D. student in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado State University, said in a statement.

With that in mind, Webb and other researchers set out to better understand the impact that climate change has on groundwater supply. They observed changes in soil wetting and drying that occur as snow melts in snowy, mountainous regions. They did this by examining subsurface water content levels in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in soil that remains wet and unfrozen beneath winter snowpacks in this region, the statement said.

Instead of drilling multiple holes into the water table, the study used a computerized network of 97 moisture sensors, at elevations ranging from 1,750 to 2,000 meters, along different types of slopes; north, south, or flat. The research also considered whether the area had open, drip edge or canopy tree cover. 

The researchers learned, in part, that measuring the ground-water was a highly variable practice: "One set of sensors could experience quite different wetting and drying dynamics, relative to a sensor only a couple of meters away," said Webb, in the release. 

The ground-water research in this area of serious drought will be ongoing, Webb said in the release. 

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Follow Samantha on Twitter at @Sam_Ashley13

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