New Tool Provides Improved Seasonal Precipitation and Snowpack Forecasting for California Reservoirs

Jan 26, 2019

Business, Internal

It’s February 1, your reservoir is at the top of conservation storage and snow water in the upper watershed is only 30% of normal. Do you start aggressively managing flood storage to hedge against a dry late winter and spring or continue operating as usual at the risk of summer water supply? Historic data aren’t much help; in many Sierra locations, a low February snowpack leads just as often to normal April conditions as to critically dry ones. It sure would be nice if you could look out across the Pacific and see what might be in store for the next couple of months…and as it turns out, you can.

Working for the NASA Ames Research Center and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), NHC and TetraTech scientists identified a mathematical relationship between California precipitation and the atmospheric circulation feature known as the North Pacific High (NPH). We have now developed a statistical model that successfully predicts April 1 snow water content, based on relative January strength of the NPH and February 1 snow water content, in the Eastern Sierra.

The model was calibrated and tested for four Owens Valley snow stations used by LADWP for reservoir operations planning. Over 66 years of hindcasting (1951-2016) and two years of forecasting (2017-2018), the model successfully predicted the relative April snow water level (i.e. dry, normal, or wet) from the January NPH location and February 1 snow surveys 75% of the time—with zero “opposite” forecasts (i.e. predicted wet/observed dry and vice versa)—for the principal station at Mammoth Pass. In addition to predicting values April 1 for snow water content, the model also calculates a probability distribution and confidence intervals, to provide a sense of the level of uncertainty of the prediction.