California's primary hydrologic system, the San Francisco Estuary and its upstream watershed, is vulnerable to the regional hydrologic consequences of projected global climate change. Previous work has shown that a projected warming would result in a reduction of snowpack storage leading to higher winter and lower spring-summer streamflows and increased spring-summer salinities in the estuary. The present work shows that these hydrologic changes exhibit a strong dependence on elevation, with the greatest loss of snowpack volume in the 1300-2700 m elevation range. Exploiting hydrologic and estuarine modeling capabilities to trace water as it moves through the system reveals that the shift of water in mid-elevations of the Sacramento river basin from snowmelt to rainfall runoff is the dominant cause of projected changes in estuarine inflows and salinity. Additionally, although spring-summer losses of estuarine inflows are balanced by winter gains, the losses have a stronger influence on salinity since longer spring-summer residence times allow the inflow changes to accumulate in the estuary. The changes in inflows sourced in the Sacramento River basin in approximately the 1300-2200 m elevation range thereby lead to a net increase in estuarine salinity under the projected warming. Such changes would impact ecosystems throughout the watershed and threaten to contaminate much of California's freshwater supply.
Additional publication details
Elevational dependence of projected hydrologic changes in the San Francisco Estuary and watershed