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Massive Sensor Network Helps Scientists Monitor Mountain Water Resources

August 28, 2017

Scientists from the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, UC Merced, UC Berkeley and the USDA Agricultural Research Service have designed the first ever wireless sensor network (WSN) capable of accurately monitoring the hydrology of large mountain river basins. The new system is detailed in two papers just published in the journal Water Resource Research.

Deployed and tested in the American River basin on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, the new WSN represents a significant improvement over existing systems. It allows for vastly improved predictions of mountain water supplies, which had long been based on very limited measurements of precipitation, snowpack and water stored as soil moisture.

“Existing systems were limited to a handful of measurement stations scattered throughout the basin, capturing only a small fraction of the diverse hydrologic landscape,” said UC Merced research scientist Robert Rice, who designed the system with USDA scientist Danny Marks. “Measurements were largely confined to flat terrain, lower elevations and forest clearings, reflecting a bias towards easily accessible sites that were not representative of the basin as a whole.”

The new WSN solves these problems. Extending across 830 of the American River basin’s 2,050 square miles and spanning elevations from 4,900 to 9,000 feet, the WSN monitors the upper 40 percent of the basin, significantly expanding the total measurement area and providing a more complete picture of the basin’s hydrologic profile.