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Climate change and the Delta, San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science
Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering
  • Michael D. Dettinger
  • Jamie Anderson
  • Michael L. Anderson
  • Larry R. Brown
  • Daniel R. Cayan
  • Edwin P. Maurer, Santa Clara University
Document Type
Publication Date
University of California

Anthropogenic climate change amounts to a rapidly approaching, “new” stressor in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta system. In response to California’s extreme natural hydroclimatic variability, complex water-management systems have been developed, even as the Delta’s natural ecosystems have been largely devastated. Climate change is projected to challenge these management and ecological systems in different ways that are characterized by different levels of uncertainty. For example, there is high certainty that climate will warm by about 2°C more (than late-20th-century averages) by mid-century and about 4°C by end of century, if greenhouse-gas emissions continue their current rates of acceleration. Future precipitation changes are much less certain, with as many climate models projecting wetter conditions as drier. However, the same projections agree that precipitation will be more intense when storms do arrive, even as more dry days will separate storms. Warmer temperatures will likely enhance evaporative demands and raise water temperatures. Consequently, climate change is projected to yield both more extreme flood risks and greater drought risks. Sea level rise (SLR) during the 20th century was about 22cm, and is projected to increase by at least 3-fold this century. SLR together with land subsidence threatens the Delta with greater vulnerabilities to inundation and salinity intrusion. Effects on the Delta ecosystem that are traceable to warming include SLR, reduced snowpack, earlier snowmelt and larger storm-driven streamflows, warmer and longer summers, warmer summer water temperatures, and water-quality changes. These changes and their uncertainties will challenge the operations of water projects and uses throughout the Delta’s watershed and delivery areas. Although the effects of climate change on Delta ecosystems may be profound, the end results are difficult to predict, except that native species will fare worse than invaders. Successful preparation for the coming changes will require greater integration of monitoring, modeling, and decision making across time, variables, and space than has been historically normal.


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Citation Information
Dettinger, M., J. Anderson, M. Anderson, L. Brown, D. Cayan and E. Maurer, 2016, Climate change and the Delta, San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 14(3): Article 5, doi: