New Technology Enables UC Scientists to Predict Water Levels in Snow

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Wireless Data Gathering

Reporter Neetu Puranikmath explains how professors Bales and Galser gather data.

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UC Merced Professor Roger Bales realizes that California has a dire problem: a water problem.

According to Bales, California is currently in a drought. But with 70 to 90 percent of the state's water supply coming from snow in the state's mountains, Bales said scientists have traditionally been unable to accurately and precisely measure this potential water source - until now.

Bales has been collaborating with UC Berkeley professor in the Department of civil and environmental engineering Steven Glaser for the past several years on CITRIS MOTES - a joint UC Merced-UC Berkeley project that has developed a network of computers and radios that can measure the amount of water in snow atop the Sierra Nevada and other Californian mountain ranges.

"From a scientific perspective, our goal is to figure out what is going on in hydrology," said Branko Kerkez, a UC Berkeley civil engineering graduate student working with Glaser and Bales. "From an engineering perspective, it is to get as much data as possible."

Bales said the research team currently has several papers based on their findings in review by academic journals and are hoping their research will get published in the summer or fall.

Currently, the project has two wireless networks that were fully established last year: one in Shaver Lake - with around 300 sensors and measuring a square kilometer in area - and a second in Lake Tahoe with around 25 sensors.

The team is currently working on setting up more sensors by the American River near Sacramento and hopes to have two more networks up by the summer, said Bales. Ideally, they hope to have five networks set up throughout the state by the end of 2011, Kerkez said.

CITRIS MOTES has two main components - data loggers that measure the snow depth and temperature, and motes, which are radios that transmit information gathered by the data loggers to other motes throughout a network across a given area. In this way, the data can be sent to a central hub and recorded, and frequent checks of the snow can be made with ease - much more quickly than with past technology, according to Bales.

At Shaver Lake, for example, new data is collected every 10 to 15 minutes.

"The primary difference is that CITRIS MOTES is wireless," Kerkez said. "In the past, they would send these guys up to measure how deep the snow is. They were able to do it only once a month. Now we have little teeny computers that have a radio on them and sensors."

Kerkez added that they are also working to develop motes that can read soil moisture, humidity, snow depth, soil temperature and solar radiation.

The project has provided researchers and scientists with real-time data that will hopefully enable a better prediction of water levels trapped in snow. Ideally, this would lead to an increased ability to predict floods and water levels for the coming year, Kerkez said.

Additionally, farmers - who, according to Kerkez, often assume the worst about water levels and subsequently plant fewer crops - could plant a second round of crops, and thus reap a greater profit, by knowing the approximate level of water.

"I think that wireless internet and related technology is opening up a lot of scientific opportunities and paving the way for new innovations," Bales said. "This project and others like it in the future are definitely going to lead to a greater quantitative understanding for water conservation, which will definitely benefit the state of California."


Contact Neetu Puranikmath at [email protected]

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