California Snowpack and Public Perceptions

Climate change is an obvious concern for many environmental and natural resources management—water resources being particularly sensitive to climatic change (California Department of Water Resources, 2009; Freeman, 2010). California’s expansive agricultural system is almost entirely dependent upon irrigation water derived from snowmelt and stored in massive reservoirs (California Department of Water Resources, 2009). The long Mediterranean summer that follows a winter of heavy precipitation requires a delicate management of such a precious resource. While reservoirs are used to supply irrigation, they also provide a means of electrical generation, protection from floods for many downstream communities, and support residential and commercial needs (Georgakakos et al. 2012). Furthermore, natural flow regimes are necessary for nurturing biotic systems that rely on the same water (Howat and Tulaczyk, 2005). This complex web of water demands is being pulled apart by climate change (Kiparsky and Gleick, 2003).

There are growing pressures to “reassess” ecological impacts of intensive water management and the policies that have been enacted to mitigate for those impacts. H.R. 1837 is one such bill that was recently (19th of February, 2012) passed by the 112th Congress. This bill allows significant flows to be diverted from the Delta region east of the San Francisco Bay and directed toward farmers—flows previously preserved for ecological needs. Not only will this degrade many of the ecological services related to delta sediment replenishment, but it will have detrimental effects on the endangered Delta smelt. Furthermore, the bill “relieves” the state of continuing restoration efforts on the San Joaquin River that were deemed necessary by previous legislation. This bill is one example of California’s delicate web of water management being pulled apart at the seams—something that climate change threatens to exasperate.

Water management in California is based on capturing snowmelt as late in the season as possible. If climate change increases temperatures just a few degrees, or if it contributes more winter rainfall rather than snowfall, the current water management system will begin to fall short. While this study is framed in the context of water management, it maintains central focus on the issue of snowpack in a changing climate. The priority of this study is a three-pronged analysis of the literary discussions occurring around the topic of climate change in California and the resulting effects on water resources as caused by altered spatiotemporal patterns of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Specifically, this study answers:

(1) What are the priorities for studying climate change-snowpack relationships in California?

(2) Are there notable differences in the perspectives of Academic, Government, and Public spheres?

(3) Are there temporal trends in the literature produced by (or for) these groups?

I have investigated previous studies relating to these issues; analyzed the directions that climate change/snowpack research has evolved in that last 25 years; and identified gaps in the knowledge-base that may be contributing to mismanagement of California’s water resources. I investigated the temporal patterns to the politics, scientific research, and news media relevant to snowpack and climate change; and whether the patterns are related to significant snowfall events, such as seasonal snowpack greatly exceeding or well below average.


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