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Impacts of climate change on groundwater availability and spring flows: Observations from the highly productive Medicine Lake Highlands/Fall River Springs Aquifer System

November 15, 2021

Medicine Lake Highlands/Fall River Springs Aquifer System, located in northeastern California, is home to some of the largest first-order springs in the United States. This work assesses the likely effects of projected climate change on spring flow. Four anticipated climate futures (GFDL A2, GFDL B1, CCSM4 rcp 8.5, CNRM rcp 8.5) for California, which predict a range of conditions (generally warming and transitioning from snow to rain with variable amounts of total precipitation), are postulated to affect groundwater recharge primarily by changing evapotranspiration. The linkages between climate variables and spring flow are evaluated using a water balance model that represents the physics of evapotranspiration and recharge, the Basin Characterization Model. Three of the four climate scenarios (GFDL A2, GFDL B1, CCSM4 rcp 8.5) project that by the year 2100, groundwater recharge (and consequently decreased spring flow) will decrease by 27%, 21%, and 9%, respectively. The fourth scenario (CNRM rcp 8.5) showed an increase in recharge of 32% due to a significant increase in precipitation (27%). Evapotranspiration increases due to a shift in the type of precipitation and a longer growing season. While the likelihood of each scenario is outside the scope of this work, unless total precipitation increases dramatically in the future, increased temperatures and decreasing precipitation will likely result in reduced spring flows, along with warmer water temperatures in downstream habitats.