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Where Research Waters Flow

March 9, 2011

Category: A Closer Look

Reflections on Suisun Marsh in California's Delta (DWR photo)

From floods to droughts, from ag to  urban,

WRPI links CSU expertise to hydro issues

By Sean Kearns, CSU Public Affairs

Ask David Zoldoske, “What’s the biggest misconception Californians have about water?”

Before taking half a breath, he’ll tell you: “That we have enough of it. Absolutely. That’s it.”

Zoldoske is executive director of the California State University’s Water Resources Policy Inititatives, a systemwide multidisciplinary network that brings CSU expertise and resources to bear upon key issues of water management, policy and quality.

Flooded fields near Sacramento (DWR photo)Given recent rains, water may seem abundant. According to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), (as of Feb. 1, 2011) the water in the state’s snowpack is about 30 percent higher than normal; and most of the state’s major reservoirs – fed both by rain and snowpack melt – are above normal storage levels for the date.

Drought at Lake Oroville and south fork of Feather River, February 2009 (DWR photo)But California experienced eight multi-year droughts in the 20th century and another from 2007 to 2009. Looking back about 1,000 years, tree-ring analyses reveal the periodic occurrence of extended droughts more severe than any in recorded history. Looking ahead, the prospects of a warming climate and a growing population could adversely affect water levels and quality, possibly amid intensely increasing demand.

Where WRPI comes in

With no shortage of water-related issues central to the future of California’s environment, health and economy, the WRPI fosters research and other activities that inform our understanding of sustainable water resources and sound policy.

Fresno State researcher Diganta Adhikari downloads evapotranspiration data and checks status of system near Fivepoints, Calif.Established in 2008, it serves as a hub for 11 institutes and more than 250 faculty and staff experts involved in applied research, technology development and policy analysis.  Zoldoske, for example, directs irrigation and water-technology institutes at Fresno State; and WRPI Associate Director Susan Longville heads the Water Resources Institute at Cal State San Bernardino. (The WRI last week announced a major grant to boost retention of science students by using watershed mapping.)

With the wide geographic distribution of CSU campuses, the WRPI’s proverbial pipelines extend from California’s northern forests to its southern deserts, and from its agricultural heartland to its major urban communities.

Fresno State soil scientist Florence Cassel Sharma (center) and student technicians set up irrigation system for research.CSU faculty members contributed expertise and input – regarding new technologies, water efficiency, agricultural stakeholders and management planning – to the California Water Plan Update 2009. Released last year, the comprehensive plan will guide the state’s efforts toward sustainable integrated water management until Update 2013 comes out.

The CSU’s potential for providing fresh scientific information on critical issues expanded in January 2011, when the DWR and CSU Sacramento signed a two-year $300,000 contract. The pact makes available to DWR a reservoir of relevant expertise from throughout the CSU, faculty and staff who can provide research and consultation in hydrology, seismology, biology, construction management, engineering, hazard assessment, software development and other fields.

According to Zoldoske, through these linkages, the CSU serves as a statewide “trusted broker” on major water issues – from the future of the Delta to the infrastructure of disadvantaged communities.

Delta smelt (DWR photo)(WRPI will hold its annual conference April 27 at the CSU Chancellor’s Office in Long Beach, bringing faculty experts together from various disciplines and campuses to discuss how the CSU – through collaborative research and other ways – can help the state address water issues.)

Assessing the Delta

Delta water winds through California farmlands (DWR photo)With the first draft of the state’s Delta Plan released last month (with finalization set for November), the 1,000 miles of waterways that drain the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys into San Francisco Bay will be under intense focus as the plan winds its way through public hearings toward implementation next year.

Discovery Bay near Highway 4 along the Delta (DWR photo)WRPI Associate Director Longville sees a continuing need for CSU experts to conduct targeted studies on conservation, runoff, wildlife and fishery habitat, water law and policy, and other Delta realms.

This could include research applied to concerns raised by the draft Delta Plan’s key preliminary findings:

  • “California’s total water supply is oversubscribed. California regularly uses more water annually than is provided by nature.”
  • “California’s water supply is increasingly volatile.”
  • “Even with substantial ecosystem restoration efforts, some native species may not survive.”
  • “There is no comprehensive state or regional emergency response plan for the Delta.”

Last year CSU Monterey Bay launched a collaborative project to optimize irrigation by getting up-to-date data to the decision-makers at the tap. Funded by a $1.95 million NASA grant, the project uses wireless sensor networks, satellite, meteorological observations, resource-modeling, scientific visualization, geographic information systems and other technologies. It combines their data to produce daily estimates of soil moisture, evapotranspiration, and irrigation demand that can be shared with water districts and agricultural operations to help them save water.

Assisting disadvantaged communities

While the vast Delta faces environmental stressors as it provides water to two-thirds of California’s population and habitat for more than 750 species of plants and animals, the WRPI also looks to address a lower-profile challenge that appears in pockets: the water-infrastructure of disadvantaged communities.

It addresses what Zoldoske sees as the second-biggest misconception Californians have about water – “That if you turn on your tap and water comes out, everything’s OK.”

Not necessarily so. According to state and federal agency reports, water quality is inordinately more compromised in lower-income communities in California and elsewhere, particularly in small water districts in unincorporated rural and urban areas.

“Almost by zip code you can pick out who has poor access to drinking water,” Zoldoske says.

Alluvial Fan Task Force with CSU San Bernardino's Water Resources InstituteThough complex, the issue, he says, is well-suited to CSU’s collective of complementary expertise—for example, in public health, water quality, social services, environmental engineering and geographic information systems.

WRPI and CSU officials have proposed to create a Center for Disadvantaged Communities Water Assistance. Federally funded with three regional hubs in California, it would provide small districts with knowledge to help them protect public health and the environment as they manage the drinking-water and wastewater systems.

Down the road, at a day-long roundtable June 28 in Rancho Cucamonga, the WRPI will gather perspectives of water districts’ leaders, elected officials, environmental justice advocates, and the EPA and other federal agencies to examine ways to fund fixing inadequate water infrastructure in impoverished communities.

Helpful links:

white birds over delta.water.ca

Background:

Around the CSU:

Duck photo by DWRMore to explore:

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