Atmospheric rivers, floods and the water resources of California

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Dettinger, Michael D., Ralph, Fred Martin, Das, Taphas, Neiman, Paul J., and Cayan, Daniel R.
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California’s highly variable climate and growing water demands combine to pose both water-supply and flood-hazard challenges to resource managers. Recently important efforts to more fully integrate the management of floods and water resources have begun, with the aim of benefitting both sectors. California is shown here to experience unusually large variations in annual precipitation and streamflow totals relative to the rest of the US, variations which mostly reflect the unusually small average number of wet days per year needed to accumulate most of its annual precipitation totals (ranging from 5 to 15 days in California). Thus whether just a few large storms arrive or fail to arrive in California can be the difference between a banner year and a drought. Furthermore California receives some of the largest 3-day storm totals in the country, rivaling in this regard the hurricane belt of the southeastern US. California’s largest storms are generally fueled by landfalling atmospheric rivers (ARs). The fractions of precipitation and streamflow totals at stations across the US that are associated with ARs are documented here and, in California, contribute 20–50% of the state’s precipitation and streamflow. Prospects for long-lead forecasts of these fractions are presented. From a meteorological perspective, California’s water resources and floods are shown to derive from the same storms to an extent that makes integrated flood and water resources management all the more important.


Dettinger, M. D., F. M. Ralph, T. Das, P. J. Neiman, and D. R. Cayan. 2011. Atmospheric rivers, floods and the water resources of California. Water 3:445–478.