Effects of climate change on stream temperature, dissolved oxygen, and sediment concentration in the Sierra Nevada in California

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John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


Warmer temperatures are expected to raise mountain stream temperatures, affecting water quality and ecosystem health. We demonstrate the importance of climate-driven changes in hydrology as fundamental to understanding changes in the local water quality. In particular, we focus on changes in stream temperature, dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations, and sediment transport in mountainous, snowmelt-dominated, and water-limited systems, using the Sierra Nevada as our case study. Downscaled output from an ensemble of general circulation model projections for the A2 (higher greenhouse gas) emission scenario was used to drive the Soil and Water Assessment Tool with a new integrated stream temperature model on the subbasin scale. Spring and summer stream temperature increase by 1°C–5.5°C, with varying increases among subbasins. The highest projected stream temperatures are in the low-elevation subbasins of the southern Sierra Nevada, while the northern Sierra Nevada, with distinct impacts on snowmelt and subsurface flow contributions to streamflow, shows moderated increases. The spatial pattern of stream temperature changes was the result of differences in surface and subsurface hydrologic, snowmelt, and air temperature changes. Concurrent with stream temperature increases and decreases in spring and summer flows, simulations indicated decreases in DO (10%) and sediment (50%) concentrations by 2100. Stream temperature and DO concentrations for several major streams decline below survival thresholds for several native indicator species. These results highlight that climatic changes in water-limited mountain systems may drive changes in water quality that have to be understood on the reach scale for developing adaptive management options.