Link between closed-basin lakes and climate change explored

9/23/2009 - By: Kathie Taylor

For two years, more than 200 people worked on 10 concurrent research projects on the sustainability of Walker Lake in Northern Nevada. A combined effort by the University of Nevada, Reno and DRI, the project culminated in findings and resources which are summarized in a 1,100 page report outlining various aspects of preserving Walker Lake and its agricultural, economic and environmental systems. Highlights of the project, plus current research on similar ecosystems around the world will be presented at the International Symposium on Terminus Lakes at the University’s Joe Crowley Student Union Oct. 26-29.

Grant-funded sponsorship for the symposium, co-hosted by the University and DRI, has allowed for low general registration costs of $120 per person prior to Oct. 5 and $150 after, and a subsidized $25 rate for students.

The Walker research is not only significant to the Walker Basin, but also to the global study of climate change. Walker Lake, like Pyramid Lake, is a terminus lake – one that water flows into, but has no outlet for water to flow out.

Wallace S. Broecker, a renowned geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said terminus, or closed-basin, lakes are critical to global change research due to their ability to predict the future of water availability world wide.

“The best indicator of how precipitation has changed is these lakes because they have no outlet,” said Broecker, who will deliver the symposium’s keynote address. Typically located in arid or semi-arid regions, terminus lakes make up about 50 percent of the world’s lakes.

“These unique terminus lakes, and their associated watershed ecosystems, are in extreme peril,” said Jim Thomas, co-chair for the Walker Basin Project Study Group and director of DRI’s Center for Watersheds and Environmental Sustainability. “The lakes may soon dry up completely or become shallow saline water bodies.”

Thomas said as the planet warms, stream flows will likely decrease and lakes in arid environments will face further stress caused by reduced water resources as evaporation rates, natural vegetation and diversions of water for other uses increase. While not all terminus lakes are under stress, the watershed model for the Walker Basin project provides a blueprint for a sound scientific approach to understanding the hydrology of terminus lake basins, no matter their location or climate. The information can be used by water-use planners and irrigation districts to plan for future water availability, Thomas said.

Agriculture and recreation are prominent industries in the Walker Basin, and both rely on water. Because of this, the Walker Basin Project included an economic impact study focused on the potential economic impact and alternatives if water rights are purchased to sustain Walker Lake. “An integrated approach was needed because of the complex nature of these ecosystems,” Thomas said. “That includes economics, water use, and alternative agriculture in addition to the hydrology and water chemistry of the system to be able to restore these types of ecosystems while maintaining a strong economy within the watershed.”

Richard Bartholet, the University’s Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said change will occur with global warming. “Helping the community to understand the economic and fiscal impact to the region, including options for mitigating these impacts, is a critical element to the eventual implementation of solutions,” he said.

Bartholet said numerous meetings were held in towns throughout the basin to update residents about the ongoing research activities and findings. The results of the Walker Basin Project were presented to people living in the basin this past June in an open forum in Yerington, Nev., and are available online at Walker Basin Project.

“Much of the research involved in the Walker Basin project is applicable to other arid portions of the U.S. and the world where there may not be a terminus lake, but there is increasing competition for limited water resources,” said Bartholet.

Berry Lyons, an internationally recognized geochemist from the Byrd Polar Research Center and professor at The Ohio State University who has studied details of climate change in closed-basin systems world wide, will speak at the symposium on the importance of terminus lake research.

“The problems associated with closed-basin lakes around the world are not dissimilar,” Lyons said. “What’s learned at Walker Basin could have implications in similar areas. Comparative studies can have translations to other parts of the world.”

Lyons served on the University of Nevada, Reno faculty from 1990-1993 as a professor and the director of the hydrologic sciences program.

The October symposium will include an optional day-long field trip tracing the only outlet of Lake Tahoe, the Truckee River, to its end at Pyramid Lake. The tour is available at a cost of $35. For more information about the symposium, or to register, visit International Symposium on Terminus Lakes website.


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