Researchers at UC Merced are taking an important step toward a statewide water-monitoring system by installing wireless sensors across the American River basin.

The system, which is also being used in the Sierra Nevada, is designed to give continuous information about how much water is available to users, and could go live online at the beginning of 2013.

“Our research provides a template for the next-generation water system for California,” said UC Merced lecturer and researcher Robert Rice. “We will be able to accurately know the amount of snow across the Sierra Nevada, as well as the timing and magnitude of snowmelt, which provides our water.”

With low-cost sensors installed across the American River basin, scientists, water managers, farmers, flood-control managers and others will be able to get a much more detailed picture of the amount of water in the basin – water that supplies much of the metro area with water for households, crops, ecosystems, power generation and recreation.

“The Sacramento Municipal Utility District is pleased that the Sierra Nevada Research Institute selected the American River Basin to evaluate this promising technology,” said principal civil engineer Dudley McFadden. “Our customer-owners expect SMUD to maximize our renewable and inexpensive hydroelectric resources. The better handle we have on the winter snowpack upstream from our storage reservoirs, the more we can rely on our forecast of summer hydropower.”

More than half a million residential, commercial and industrial connections receive water from the American River through 25 water purveyors that make up the Sacramento Water Forum, but that’s only one group of users.

The river contributes to serving millions of people as part of the federal Central Valley Project, an integrated system of dams, reservoirs, channels, canals, pumps and other conveyances that store and ship water throughout the state from the Shasta/Trinity area down to Bakersfield.

“A modern, accurate water-information system is critical for water security, especially given the changes brought about by climate warming in the mountains,” said Professor Roger Bales, director of UC Merced’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute.

“This project provides solid basic research as well as practical data we can use today, McFadden said. “With the changing climate, the distribution of the snowpack around watersheds appears to be changing as well. Methods we’ve used for decades to evaluate the snowpack and how much of it will be available the next summer — versus evaporating or soaking into the soil — simply don’t measure up anymore. What’s more, continuous monitoring permits us to observe directly how fast the snow is melting and pinpoint when the meltwater will arrive at our reservoirs each spring.”

This isn’t the first time this kind of research has been conducted – Bales and colleagues developed the technology by making comprehensive water measurements in the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory, near Shaver Lake.