Since 2011, water resources in Nevada and Lake Tahoe have become increasingly scarce.
“Our state has pretty much had every county declared a drought emergency since July 2012,” Doug Boyle, Nevada State Climatologist and associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said last week at a gathering of drought experts and media at UNR.
“2014 had the warmest temperatures on record in California, Nevada and Arizona.”
And it’s not getting better.
Data for March puts the Reno region in an “exceptional drought,” according to a University of Nevada Cooperative Extension report. On a scale of 1-5, that’s a 5.
Climate models forecast below-normal precipitation through June.
With drought conditions expected to get worse, experts from the university, cooperative extension and Desert Research Institute are linking their areas of expertise.
UNR and DRI together have “one of the largest collections of water and air experts in the U.S.,” said Kelly Redmond, deputy director and regional climatologist for the Western Regional Climate Center at DRI.
Linking resources includes experts meeting together to talk about issues and even sharing equipment.
Graham Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological laboratory at UNR, has four mountaintop observatories at Lake Tahoe that now include high-definition cameras and remote sensing equipment. It not only transmits seismic information, but environmental and climate data for monitoring fire activity.
“Since (the equipment) is already out there, we already have seismological data, (so) why not expand it to include environmental data,” Kent said.
“Cameras are our eyes and ears on fires.”
Kent knows how valuable cameras are during wildfire emergencies. He lived through San Diego’s 2003 Cedar Fire. In the aftermath, cameras were installed at seismological stations. During the Witch Creek Fire in 2007, those cameras provided real time information that aided evacuations.
“They saved lives,” he said. “Information you normally get on the ground is old. Cameras provide more actionable information.”
Water experts are looking at ways to save water, especially in agriculture.
“My mission is to develop alternative crops for more water efficiency than current crops,” said John Cushman, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
He’s focusing on feedstock and biofuels. Of special interest is the prickly pear cactus. While using one-fifth the water as conventional crops, it can provide food for people and animals and even become a source of biofuel.
Other researchers are helping to make the jump from climate modeling to real data about climate change and water resources.
Franco Biondi, professor and DenrdoLab director in the Department of Geography at UNR, has a series of towers in Nevada’s Snake Range and Sheep Range that tracks conditions.
“We’re trying to make long-term observations of current conditions to see if there are any changes,” Biondi said.
Other experts focus on today’s needs.
The cooperative extension has experts helping farmers and ranchers mitigate the drought risks and other experts walk homeowners and business owners through water conservation steps.
Drought is an ongoing reality. Why droughts happen and how long this one lasts is a matter of debate.
“Why, is a matter of active research,” Boyle said. “Every couple weeks, a new study comes out. The debate is ongoing.”