U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Stable Hydrogen and Oxygen Isotopes of Tap Water Reveal Structure of the San Francisco Bay Area's Water System and Adjustments During a Major Drought

NCJ Number
Since there is an increased need to understand linkages between urban centers, water transport and usage, and the impacts of climate change on water resources, this study examined whether stable hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios could increase the understanding of these relationships within a megalopolis in the Western United States.
Water availability and sustainability in the Western United States is a major flashpoint among expanding communities, growing industries, and productive agricultural lands. This issue came to a head in 2015 in the State of California, when the State mandated a 25-percent reduction in urban water use following a multi-year drought that significantly depleted water resources. Water demands and challenges in supplying water are only expected to intensify as climate perturbations, such as the 2012-2015 California Drought, become more common. In addressing this issue, the current study collected and analyzed 723 tap waters across the San Francisco Bay Area during seven collection campaigns spanning 21 months during 2013-2015. The San Francisco Bay Area was selected since it has well-characterized water management strategies, and the 2012-2105 California Drought dramatically affected its water resources. Consistent with known water management strategies and previously collected isotope data, the study found large spatiotemporal variations in the ä2H and ä18O values of tap waters within the Bay Area. This is indicative of complex water transport systems and varying municipality-scale management decisions. Researchers observed ä2H and ä18O values of tap water consistent with waters originating from snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, local precipitation, ground water, and partially evaporated reservoir sources. A cluster analysis of the isotope data collected in this study grouped waters from 43 static sampling sites that were associated with specific water utility providers within the San Francisco Bay Area and known management practices. Various management responses to the drought, such as source switching, bringing in new sources, and water conservation, were observed in the isotope data. Finally, the study estimated evaporative loss from one utility's reservoir system during the 2015 water year, using a modified Craig-Gordon model to estimate the consequences of the drought on this resource. It estimated that upwards of 6.6 percent of the water in this reservoir system was lost to evaporation. (publisher abstract modified)
Date Created: January 28, 2021