Three straight dry winters have left several Western states with extreme drought conditions. In Nevada, the drought, extreme heat and the potential for the trend to continue has officials looking for answers. The threats to farmers and ranchers, and an increased danger of destructive wildfires, were the basis for a $3.8 million grant for a project called Water for the Seasons.
The grant was to the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and the Desert Research Institute in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey to identify potential impacts of climate change and how to protect the water resources of northern Nevada by integrating science and water policy research with community outreach. Part of the grant ($1.8 million) was awarded by the National Science Foundation to UNR, and the other $2 million was awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Desert Research Institute and Geological Survey.
The project will focus on the Truckee-Carson River Systems, where water is dependent on the timing and duration of winter storms and runoff, and look to adopt new strategies for enhancing resiliency in communities in the region.
The threat of increased wildfires is a huge concern, said Maureen McCarthy, the project’s director and interim director of UNR’s Academy for the Environment. “I live in Lake Tahoe, so I watch the fire level every day,” she said. “As we go through these droughts that are punctuated by extreme rain events, we are creating conditions that make us incredibly more at risk to catastrophic wildfires.”
McCarthy explained that there’s more vegetation from the rain events that happen with a warmer climate, there are slide areas where vegetation is lost and the trees are becoming stressed from a lack of water. In northern Nevada, nighttime temperatures have been on the rise for decades. Not getting the extreme cold nights that killed bugs and beetles means those insects can infest and damage pine trees, rendering them fuel for wildfires.
“There is a whole series of combinations that are occurring in the environment that are making the risk of catastrophic wildfires even more pronounced as the water supplies not only diminish but become less predictable,” McCarthy said.
The project will develop a Stakeholder Advisory Group, probably by the end of this year, that represents the various communities, such as tribes, agricultural producers, urban planners, economic developers and water managers to determine the impacts on each community because they will all be affected differently and at different times. The goal of the project is to use northern Nevada to develop an understanding of what resilience means to arid communities that depend on water from snow-fed river systems and transfer that knowledge to other such lands.
The snowpack was around 20 percent for the region this past winter and spring, but the impacts vary for the different communities. Agriculture has taken a big hit, and in some areas the water supply has dried up completely. The task of the project is to understand not only how drought impacts each community but to also get a holistic view. The project will look at extreme but plausible events, such as a warm rain storm during winter, the effects on the communities, and not just historical averages.
“Part of the challenge is to work with the communities to understand which kinds of scenarios stress them the most and create scenarios for different kinds of droughts — droughts punctuated by floods, colder, warmer, shorter, longer — so that we understand which communities are at the highest risk under which conditions and when,” McCarthy said.
Traditionally the different communities and also areas of interest such as earth science, policy and environmental impact, tended to focus on their own issues. This project aims to get all those interests to the table to develop a holistic look and an understanding of how resilient water systems are in areas vulnerable to climate change.
“It means trying to get climatologists to talk to hydrologists, to talk to environmental policy experts and conservationists,” McCarthy said. “And to have tools come together in an integrated approach so that you can really understand what it means to have sustainable water supplies in the face of extreme climate change.”
In addition, part of the challenge is to understand the effects of climate change on the headwaters of the Truckee River system, which originates in California from Lake Tahoe, the single largest source of water for the Truckee system, and runs into Nevada’s Pyramid Lake, McCarthy said. “We’re concerned about things that happen in the Tahoe Basin, how it’s impacted by climate change and the impacts on the water supply.”