But this is a much bigger project than has been constructed before.

“We’re going from monitoring a 5-square-kilometer area to a 5,000-square-kilomter area in one big jump,” said engineering Professor Martha Conklin. “It’s a full-basin hydrologic observatory, and a prototype water information system.”

The distributed sensor network is being designed by Steven Glaser at UC Berkeley and Rice oversees the building and placement of the monitors, while Bales, Conklin and others work on different aspects of the project.

But they are only a few of many people and groups involved with – and interested in – the project.

“There are a lot of players,” Rice said, including the California Department of Water and the USDA’s agricultural research station in Boise, Idaho, which is running a long-term hydrologic experiment of its own and helping manage this large project.

Hydropower interests, energy agencies, irrigation districts and other water managers, as well as groups responsible for flood management, are eagerly awaiting the stream of data that will be available through the Department of Water Resource’s California Data Exchange Center website.

The data will be available to the public, and Rice said that will give other scientists the chance to use the information for their own research.

“It will be a place for the scientific community to work,” he said.

The project is also part of the Intelligent Water Infrastructure initiative at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) – one of four Gov. Gray Davis Institutes for Science and Innovation at the University of California. 

In 2011, CITRIS established a multidisciplinary research team to provide technical and scientific leadership to address increasingly severe water supply problems. The team draws on expertise from the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Merced, Santa Cruz and Davis, and represents relevant world-leading research.

The National Science Foundation granted $2 million for the monitoring system’s construction and placement, and Rice said the researchers plan to begin measurements before the snow begins to fly this fall, and have the data streaming by January, if not before.

Data gathered will include precipitation, snowmelt, snow-water content, soil-water storage and more.

Three groups of sensors are already in place, and three are being added this fall. Over the coming two years, researchers plan to place 12 to 15 more groups of sensors in the north, south and middle forks of the American River, which serves the Sacramento metro area, to paint an even clearer picture of the river basin’s water resources.

“This is just the next step,” Bales said. “Next, you could do the whole San Joaquin Valley, and eventually the whole state.”