California water supply from high elevation snow melt is vulnerable to climate change and prolonged drought conditions. Reduced snow pack and earlier snow melt will result in a greater reliance on man-made reservoirs and subsurface catchment storage. To gain insight into the subsurface storage volume of high elevation catchments, we studied the residence time distribution of surface water leaving the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory.
Since October 2014, we have collected monthly samples of two residence time tracers with contrasting half-lives: sulfur-35 (87.5 days) and tritium (12.32 years). Upstream catchment area at the three nested sampling locations is 1 km2 (P301 sub-catchment), 4 km2 (Providence Creek) and ~50 km2 (Big Creek). Samples were analyzed at LLNL by low level liquid scintillation counting and noble gas mass spectrometry after helium accumulation.
Variations in tracer concentrations in precipitation, both for tritium (11-24 pCi/L) and sulfur-35 (24-100 mBq/L), complicate straightforward interpretation of residence times. Sulfur-35 concentrations show that last year precipitation contributes 1% - 10% of total stream flow, even during peak snowmelt. Tritium concentrations in stream flow vary between 40% and 60% of the initial concentration in precipitation (15.5 pCi/L), indicating that water leaving the catchment has a residence time on the order of years to decades. Additional analyses of sodium-22 (2.6 year half-life) will aid in deconvoluting the residence time distribution. These low tracer concentrations can be attributed to current severe drought conditions, resulting in low discharge rates and longer residence times.
This work performed under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under Contract DE-AC52-07NA27344. LLNL-ABS-675107
Visser, A., Thaw, M., Stacy, E., Hunsaker, C., Bibby, R., Deinhart, A.L., Schorzman, K., Egnatuk, C., Conklin, M., Esser, B. (2015): Variability of Residence Time tracer Concentrations at the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory during the California Drought. H21F Hydrochronology: Advances in Tracer Methods, Modeling Techniques, and Applications of Residence Times in Hydrology Research I Posters., presented at 2015 Fall Meeting, AGU, San Francisco, CA, 14-18 Dec..