Department

Environmental Studies

Publication Year

2016

Abstract

Mountain meadows play a critical role in the hydrology of California's watersheds by preventing flooding, improving water quality, and delivering moisture downstream. In this study, the depth of the water table defines hydrologic health, where a shallow water table is considered a healthy hydrologic system. Meadows are highly sensitive to changes in water availability, making drought a particularly potent threat. This study investigated the health, vegetation distribution, and water balance of a montane meadow (Bluff Meadow) located in the San Bernardino National Forest. By integrating field observations of climate and water table depths in ArcGIS with hydrological modeling, this study assessed the health of the system, evaluated its sensitivity to regional precipitation, and modeled how this critical ecosystem may be irreversibly altered in an ever-warming world. The hydrologic model integrated the major variables of precipitation, surface temperature and humidity (model inputs) to predict the depth of the water table (model output) in both time and space. By calibrating the model against physical measurements of water table depth, predictions were made about the future hydrologic health (water table depth) of Bluff Meadow. Results showed that the drought had a dire effect on the future climate of California, which may be a permanent change. The hydrologic model gives best and worse case scenarios for Bluff Meadow as a result of the drought. If drought-like conditions continue, even with the El Nino this winter, the model predicts that the hydrologic health of the meadow will worsen over time. A recovery from this drought will take more precipitation than just one El Nino winter. Therefore, this study concluded that the 2012 - 2015 California drought was not just an instantaneous event, but a glimpse into California's future climate.

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