Larger Hydrologic Issues

Increasing Dependency on Upland Ground Water in the Northern Sierra Nevada

High yield wells are typically drilled in the sediment aquifers of the valley floors such as in Sierra, American and Indian Valleys. But poor ground water quality, limited space and competing agricultural interests increasingly force residential developments to depend on fractured rock aquifers under the mountain slopes surrounding these valleys, land originally thought to be of marginal value.

Among the problems currently facing hydrogeologists perhaps none is as challenging as the hydrology of fractured rock aquifers. Dilemmas posed by increasing dependency on fractured rock aquifers include limited well yields and contamination from underground septic systems. A growing concern among ground water experts is the uncertainty when estimating long term yield of bedrock aquifers and effects of land use changes on ground water recharge and water quality.

Stream and Watershed Restoration in the Sierras

In the last two decades river sediment has diminished efficient operation of the hydroelectric power plants in the North Fork Feather River Canyon. Sediment has become a huge economic liability, the source of which is erosion of streambanks and hill slopes. Significant economic losses result from erosion of pasture land, destruction of recreational fisheries, diminishing land values and reduced ground water storage in flood plains. By the early 1980's it had become clear that a comprehensive solution to erosion control and stream restoration in the upper watersheds was needed to control the sediment problem in the Feather River Basin. In 1985 seventeen government agencies and private entities banded together to form the Feather River Coordinated Resource Management Group (in short ‘FR-CRM’) to control erosion, to protect, maintain and enhance ecosystems and community stability in the Feather River Watershed through collaborative landowner participation.

The FR-CRM has been remarkably successful. Like anything in water resources management, tackling the siltation problem requires interdisciplinary and interagency cooperation. The scope of restoration has expanded into uplands watersheds, to tackle impacts from catastrophic fire on erosion, reducing flood peaks and increasing late season streamflow. The long-term benefits include improved viability of water supplies and ecosystems enhancement.

Other Web Sites:
Feather River CRM
Plumas Watershed Forum
Quincy Library Group
Who is the Quincy Library Group

Limited Water Resources

The population in the American West is growing fast putting limited water supplies under increasing stress. This adds huge complications where water resources management already faces uncertainties due to unpredictable weather patterns. What is at stake here is sustainability of a limited resource - the ability to meet our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. While ‘sustainability‘ is seen by some as an unjustified constraint, others feel it addresses not only availability of water but also certain ‘quality of life‘ concerns, such as good water quality and maintaining ecosystems - viewed as an integral part of successful water resources management.

If there was plenty of water for all, nobody would be worried about sustainability. The close connection between ground and surface water can pose limitations on water development, since we often do not really know the long-range impacts of our present decisions on the future response of some aquifers. The problem is further complicated by the looming prospect of climate change. Responsible planning calls for adaptive management without compromising future needs. Unfortunately this does not satisfy our current philosophy of capital intensive land development. Will the water resources that we depend on so heavily face us with the prospect of a paradigm change in our land management practices?

The journal “Southwest Hydrology” has dedicated its entire January/February 2005 issue (Vol. 4, No. 1) to the problem of sustainability in water resources.

Aging Water Resources Infrastructure in the US

Much of America's water supply infrastructure is very old, often built with inferior or no standards. Most of our big dams are now 50 to 100 years old. California’s aging levee system has a similar problem. A recent report published by the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned an average poor grade "D" to all of America's water-related infrastructure. We are ‘resting on the laurels’ of a huge push in water infrastructure development that ended more than 30 years ago. While the effects of the aging system are beginning to show, current funding for infrastructure improvement is only a fraction of what is needed to maintain a viable economy, minimum safety standards and human health. This forces utilities and emergency agencies to only respond to disasters as they happen. As the infrastructure weakens more problems are expected to arise if this situation is not changed.

The challenge for the American public is whether we are willing to reinvest in our once exemplary life-sustaining water infrastructure or eventually face the prospect of an infrastructure that increasingly resembles that of a third-world nation.

The interested reader is directed to the March/April 2006 issue of the trade journal “Southwest Hydrology” (Vol. 5, No. 2) which has been dedicated to this problem.

Other Web Sites:
Hoover Dam

Climate Change and California Water Supply

The mainstream consensus in the scientific debate is that increasing CO2 in the global atmosphere has the long-term consequence of increasing average atmospheric temperature - and climate changes. The consensus is also that the continuously increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere are caused by human industry.

Predicting the exact outcome of the impacts of increased greenhouse gases is difficult. But there are a few key observations that should convince even the most ardent skeptic that it is not a matter of 'if' but a matter of 'when' and 'how much'.

The diagram below captures ‘in a nutshell’ what the current climate change debate is all about. In the past 350,000 years our planet’s atmosphere has undergone four natural cycles of increasing and decreasing carbon dioxide. A correlation between CO2 (green) and average air temperature (blue) can not be ignored. Before the industrial revolution (about 200 years ago) the average natural atmospheric CO2 and temperature were at a peak period when compared to the record of the past 350,000 years.

CO2 Diagram

The concern is that due to human activity carbon dioxide levels have increased from about 280 ppm before the industrial revolution to about 380 ppm today (vertical red line). That is about 30% higher than the maximum seen in the past. What temperatures would one expect when so far carbon dioxide has increased to levels far greater than ever recorded in the past 350,000 years? That is the crucial point of the debate! More troubling is that atmospheric carbon dioxide measured since 1958 continues to increase.

While the magnitude of global atmospheric temperature increase remains debatable, most climatologists agree that temperature increases are inevitable. And as it affects many of the world’s water supplies, so it is expected to impact California's. For example stream flow data from the Sierra Nevada suggest that spring snowmelt is arriving earlier. Thereby the water storage capacity of the Sierra snowpack reservoir is reduced, diminishing water available for the dry summer months. From the standpoint of long term statewide water planning this observation is somewhat disturbing.

Arguably, climate change is probably one of the most challenging problems human society will ever face. It will demand that ours and coming generations globally change their attitudes toward more mature and responsible political behavior. Yet, the history of past responses to environmental constraints lends hope that this challenge will eventually lead to a more orderly global political economy.

Other Web Sites:
The climate problem explained the simple way
California State Climate Change Portal
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
The Gulf Stream slowdown
climate change in the news

Changing Trends in the US Science and Engineering Workforce

The increasing need for a well trained Science and Engineering (S&E) workforce in the US is not being met. It is expected to adversely affect economic productivity and should not be ignored by leaders in industry and education.

Since the end of the cold war in 1990 increasing numbers of S&E workers are retiring. Employment trends indicate that during the 2000-2010 period employment in S&E occupations is expected to increase about three times faster than the rate for all other occupations, with almost half of those jobs in environmental sciences (biology, forestry, hydrology, geology, climate science, and others).

Unfortunately the expected demand is not being met, due to fewer high school graduates taking an interest in S&E careers. As a result firms and universities in the United States increasingly rely on a growing international workforce from countries like Europe, China and India. However, as new centers of technological excellence arise in other countries to fill their growing demand for S&E expertise, US employers may find it increasingly difficult to recruit scientists and engineers from abroad.

These trends clearly demand more political support not only for S&E training in the US, but also for improved education of the entire US domestic workforce.

More information about this disturbing development can be found in the "Science and Engineering Indicators - 2002".

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Burkhard Bohm, Geologist and Hydrologist
CA Professional Geologist, License No. 5619
CA Certified Hydrogeologist, License No. 337

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