UC Davis is playing a major role in solving California’s biggest water woes by joining forces across the UC system. The UC Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative aims to account for all of California’s water, better understand how and where it flows, and help demonstrate how water can be managed differently to allow for greater water security.

“Our goal is to learn more about our entire water system so we can concretely begin to restructure it, especially with regard to smarter management of groundwater and surface water,” said Graham Fogg, a UC Davis hydrogeology professor and co-principal investigator of UC Water for the Davis campus. “We’ve gotten by pretty well in the past because we had enough groundwater storage to absorb our mistakes. But in this new age of scarcity, that’s less and less true.”

UC Water plans to tie together UC Merced’s snow and surface water sensor system, which tracks how much water is entering streams and reservoirs from the Sierra Nevada mountains, with the groundwater expertise of UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz to see the groundwater impacts downstream. UC Berkeley is addressing how science can be implemented with policy. As a multi-campus research initiative, UC Water is expanding to include more water researchers throughout the UC.

“It’s not so much that we’re out of water,” said UC Water program director Leigh Bernacchi. “It’s that we’re not tracking it well. We don’t really know where it goes or how it’s used. Information is the key bottleneck.”

Making water clear

Fogg said that while water levels in reservoirs are well-known, it’s less clear for groundwater. He’s working to develop a tool, using Yolo County as a prototype, that can calculate the change in groundwater storage on a monthly or weekly basis. With a better understanding of how water moves in the system, UC Davis will also work to develop a water accounting tool that can determine how groundwater recharging today is expected to improve future water storage.

“Increasing groundwater recharge is key, but it must be done many years in advance to effect water security and sustainability. We will never convince people to massively increase recharge water today, decades before it’s ultimate use, unless we can demonstrate the long-term future benefits,” Fogg said. “If people are supposed to manage water differently, how can they if they don’t know the state of the system at any given time? A lot of this has to do with making the water system more transparent and managing for the long term.”

‘I think of us as the water campus’

UCOP has provided $4 million in funding for the UC Water over four years. In the first year, UC Water additionally awarded $120,000 in grants to several UC Davis scientists:

  • Professor Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences, is lead investigator on a grant shared with UC Merced professor Mark Beutel and UC Berkeley’s Stephanie Carlson to optimize water flows and temperature of reservoirs for fish during drought.
  • Senior researcher Josué Medellín-Azuara is using drones to study evapotranspiration in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
  • Professor Kate Scow and Cooperative Extension specialist Daniele Zaccaria, both of UC Davis, will study the application of technologies for estimating water use in row crops at the Russell Ranch Sustainable Agricultural Facility

“UC Davis is itself impressive in water,” Fogg said. “I think of us as the water campus. But there are these critical strengths in water at other UCs. Leveraging those produces not only stronger research, but potentially could be game-changing for California water management.”