Climate change amounts to a fast 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. Future precipitation changes are less certain, with as many climate models projecting wetter conditions as drier. Warmer temperatures will likely enhance evaporation and raise water temperatures. Consequently, climate change is projected to yield both more extreme flood risks and greater drought risks.
Effects on the Delta ecosystem that are traceable to warming include sea level rise, reduced snowpack, earlier snowmelt and larger storm-driven streamflow, 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.