Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey are carrying out a low-flow stream study across six western states in an effort to understand better how water supplies could be allocated during droughts in the future.

Throughout September, the researchers will be measuring temperatures and flow rates in almost 500 streams located generally in upper tributaries in Washington, Utah, Oregon, Nevada, California and Idaho. The results of the study won't come out until 2016 but the researchers' findings will guide many things like how much water will be released from dams, how much water will be available in irrigation districts, how many cattle can be allowed to graze and how plants and animals protected by the Endangered Species Act will be managed.

There was actually an average amount of precipitation recorded in the United States but majority of it came down as rain, which immediately flowed through water basins instead of forming as snowpacks that will slowly melt to replenish streams during the summer.

Chris Konrad, the study's project chief, said that current figures are extreme by historical standards but they can be expected to occur frequently. However, climate models have predicted that there will be even warmer winters, yielding less snowpacks in some years.

One of the major goals of the study is to identify which water basins are most threatened by low snowpacks and which are likely to do well even with the lack of snow because of groundwater access. The study is also looking into tracking water temperature as a means of gauging ideal conditions for fish, particularly those under federal protection, many of whom can't survive warm waters.

Water managers are saying that information from the USGS study can provide not only assistance for filling water reservoirs but guidance as well to prevent flooding in communities downstream.

Jessica Gardetto from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management explained that the study can help the agency in determining grazing allotments or adjusting stream flows to accommodate water rights agreements. She added that they already use numerous USGS studies to facilitate their reports on the National Environmental Policy Act so the new study is likely to be included as well.

Depending on the results of the study, 2015 could prove to be the standard in summers.

Photo: Anthony Quintano | Flickr

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