Sierra Nevada, known as UC Merced’s “outdoor laboratory,” is where UCM Engineering professor, Roger Bales, implements the usage of sensors to obtain data that will significantly improve ecological measurements and hydrologic forecasting.
The amount of water that counties and businesses in California receive in summer is largely determined by the bulk of snow winter brings to the Sierra Nevada.
Approximately 60 percent of the water consumed in California comes from the melting Sierra snow.
Water managers have always encountered the difficult task of allocating this resource. They estimate how much and when water should be stored in reservoirs and the amount sent downstream. Sometimes, estimations of the amount of water that should be placed in reservoirs are inaccurate by as much as 20 to 30 percent, which could potentially result in a $150 million shortage or excess of water needed.
Roger Bales, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute (SNRI), is working to reduce the percent errors in their calculations.
“If we reduce the uncertainty in their estimates in a way that people can use, we could pretty easily imagine adding tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to the state's economy," said Bales.
One solution is to wire the Sierra with sensors but this approach has many physical constraints, and a high possibility of rodents and bears chewing and plowing through the wires.
A more effective approach is the matching of remote measurements from satellites with wireless ground monitoring. Bales is deploying a new generation of wireless sensors, which were developed by UC Berkeley Professor Steven Glaser.
Though the size of matchbooks, the sensors communicate using wireless microprocessors known as motes to measure soil moisture, snow depth, and other figures vital in predicting spring and summer water availability.
"What we are deploying right now in this small watershed lays the foundation for new information systems to greatly improve ecological measurement and hydrologic forecasting," Bales said. "At the same time, it is advancing sensor technology and provides insights about basic Earth-atmosphere interactions."
Currently, the prototype grid is being established on a 2.5 square kilometer site in the Sierra Nevada, but Bales wants to create a wireless sensor grid that will cover the entire region, an area of approximately 3,000 square kilometers. Bales feels this effort will dynamically change the water system in California.
"When we can measure these features at the large watershed scale, we can really make a major contribution to the state's water management," Bales said. "Such a grid, along with satellite data, advanced hydrologic models and supporting cyber-infrastructure will form the core of a new water information system for California."
The collaboration between UC Merced and UC Berkeley is supported by the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), which brings together researchers from different UC campuses to generate information technology solutions for social, environmental, and health care problems.