BALES: Monitoring would help California make most of limited water

July 29, 2012

We are in the midst of a growing world water crisis that is causing conflict and social unrest across the globe.

Right now, 1.1 billion people — about a seventh of the world's population — lack access to needed amounts of safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. Climate change is worsening the situation, and we are beginning to see increased evidence of this water supply crisis here in the Central Valley.

The key to a sustainable future is a cost-effective water system that can supply enough water, minimize flood risks, improve water quality and last for generations to come.

Climate change affects water's availability, which has serious implications for people, ecosystems and the state's economy.
From growing crops and supporting metropolitan cities to sustaining ecosystems, fresh water is one of the state's most precious and essential resources.

People, especially leaders in government and business, must urgently address these pressing issues using the best, most up-to-the-moment information. This can come about through a statewide, intelligent water-information system.

Just as we use government resources as the foundation for weather tracking and forecasting, it's critical that California adopt a statewide water-monitoring system that can give a full, reliable and continuous accounting of the state's water supply and water systems.

An expanded water-monitoring system would provide California the information needed to operate its water system with less uncertainty and greater efficiency. It would allow leaders to know much more, from the amount of snowpack in the Sierra to the quality of water in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys and delta. Information that enables more efficient routing of water also will provide guidance for infrastructure investments.

Perhaps the most significant benefit of a statewide water-monitoring system is that it would be far more efficient than anything in use, and can save multimillions of dollars by enabling better water-use and water-storage decisions.

University of California researchers are developing powerful solutions to a wide range of water issues, from better monitoring and data gathering to more efficient storage and low-cost purification methods. Technology being developed at UC Merced allows us to gather, process, display and control groundwater resource data in near real time, providing the tools operators need to optimize groundwater and surface-water management.

Up to 60 percent of California's water supply comes from groundwater, and it is estimated that the state uses 18 percent more groundwater than is being replenished by nature. Engineered recharging of aquifers provides storage of excess surface water and, coupled with engineered wetlands, removes sediments and pollutants, and improves water quality.

About 65 percent of California's renewable water resources come from Sierra Nevada snowmelt, and the ability to forecast water supplies based on historical data is becoming more uncertain because of the changing climate. As the climate warms, historical snowpack-runoff patterns provide poorer estimates of future water availability.

Measuring snowpack in real time will give state officials better information when they decide how much will flow to downstream users and how much will flow to the delta, and help communities better understand their water supplies, including water quality.
Information from low-cost wireless sensor networks offers the opportunity for timely decision making, and can enhance the management of every aspect of California's water system.

A smart water-monitoring system also would provide early warning of infrastructure threats, improve flood control, offer a way to monitor and maintain the delta's levees — especially after incidents such as earthquakes — and improve water management for irrigation.
Water quality is part of the global water problem, and in California our poorest valley communities often suffer from the lowest water quality.
Smarter water infrastructure will make it possible to simultaneously increase water storage, flood control and hydropower capacity of California's reservoirs. Effective use of water storage is central to a water-secure future.

Keeping California's water clean and in good supply is an age-old question. A statewide water monitoring system will help with the answer.

Bales is a professor of engineering at UC Merced and director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute. He also is a researcher for the UC Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society.
The essay on which this piece is based was included in the latest report from the Great Valley Center and the Sierra Nevada Research Institute. The report is titled "Assessing the Region Via Indicators: The Environment, 2006-2011." The report can be viewed at