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The lakes and streams of the Sierra Nevada are vulnerable to acidic deposition because of the predominance of granitic rocks and thin acidic soils in their catchments, and the large quantity of precipitation in the region. Most of the precipitation to the Sierra Nevada falls as very dilute snow. When this is combined with the more acidic spring, summer, and autumn rain or wet snow, annual volume-weighted mean pH values of precipitation are between 5.2 and 5.5. Annual deposition (meq m−2) ranges from 2 to 14 for H+, 2 to 12 for NO3 and 1.5 to 13 for SO42−.

Characteristics of Sierra Nevada lakes obtained from the EPA’s Western Lake Survey can be summarized as follows: 70% were < 10 ha in area and < 10 m deep; about 75% had pH values between 6.5 and 7.5 and only one had a pH value < 6.0; 65% had ANC values < 100 [icq L−1 and 75% had SO42− values < 10 µeq L−1. Calcium is the dominant cation in all the lakes. Weathering of plagioclase feldspars in intrusive igneous rocks produces the observed strong correlation of Ca2+ and Na+ with ANC for most lakes. An R-mode factor analysis confirmed this and identified associations of Ca2+ and SO42− or Ca2+ and Mg2+ in moderate-to-high ANC waters. Samples from a nonrandom subset of 15 lakes indicated that pH values are lower by 0.2 to 1.0 units in the spring or early summer, compared to autumn values.

Processes influencing lacustrine chemistry are examined with data from intensively studied Emerald Lake and Gem Lake and from five other lakes sampled year round. Rock weathering in the catchment is the major source of ANC; sediments within the lakes contribute slightly to ANC accumulation during stratified periods under ice and in mid-summer. Brief episodes of near zero ANC can occur during exceptionally heavy rains and during snowmelt. The main influence of the large volume of water released during snowmelt is to flush the lakes with very dilute water. A slight acidifying effect is also associated with snowmelt and rains, but the effect is episodic, not chronic.

Zooplankton and benthic macroinvertebrates known to be sensitive to acidic inputs are common and abundant in Sierra Nevada waters, hence it is unlikely that acidic deposition has affected the biota. Furthermore, paleolimnological data derived from diatom microfossils indicate no evidence for regional acidification during the last century. Lakes of the Sierra Nevada are not now acidified but are extremely vulnerable to increases in acidity of atmospheric precipitation.

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© 1991 Springer-Verlag New York Inc.

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Melack, J.M., Stoddard, J.L. (1991). Sierra Nevada, California. In: Charles, D.F. (eds) Acidic Deposition and Aquatic Ecosystems. Springer, New York, NY.

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