How atmospheric forecasting of rivers can help California drought

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The Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes brings together research and forecasting to improve forecasting of atmospheric rivers.

SACRAMENTO, Calif .– Atmospheric rivers can cause dangerous flooding, but without them California can sink into drought. Improving the forecast of these huge storms is a goal for the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes to keep flowing water in the state.

Marty Ralph remembers living in Los Angeles in the 1980s when a massive rainstorm knocked down nearly half of the year-round rainfall in 12 hours. That’s when he realized he wanted to study these kind of storms.

Ralph is now the director of the CW3E and says researchers are finding it’s not just the strength of atmospheric rivers, but the length of time that this storm stays over a location. This is one of the crucial elements in determining how much rain or snow will fall in a particular location and potentially cause dangerous flooding.

Ralph says one of the keys to getting ahead of these dangerous conditions is to consolidate research and forecasting into one center. This improves the immediacy of the feedback loop when a forecast is going well or not.

One of the goals is the ability to use and store our water more efficiently through new programs such as Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO).

This is a reservoir operation strategy using CW3E forecasts for more informed decisions on whether to conserve or release water. Tested at Lake Mendocino, it has been shown to be effective in both wet and dry years. In fact, Ralph says, during the drought year they ended up with 20% more water in the reservoir, helping to provide water to tens of thousands of people.

He says FIRO is now expanding to other reservoirs like Lake Oroville, New Bullards Bar and the Prado Dam. They take a large-scale approach for a win-win situation benefiting water supply, flood control and environmental protection.

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