Understanding Water Supply Forecast Errors in Western Colorado

Peter Goble

Colorado State University

Tuesday, May 07, 2024, 2:00 pm MT
DSRC Room 2A305


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Annual spring and summer runoff from western Colorado is relied upon by 40 million people, six states, and two countries. Cool season precipitation and snowpack have historically been robust predictors of seasonal runoff in western Colorado. Forecasts made with this information allow water managers to plan for the season ahead. Antecedent hydrological conditions, such as root zone soil moisture and groundwater storage, and weather conditions following peak snowpack also impact seasonal runoff. The roles of such factors were scrutinized in 2020 and 2021: seasonal runoff was much lower than expectations based on snowpack values alone.

We investigate the relative importance of meteorological and hydrological conditions occurring before and after the snowpack season in predicting seasonal runoff in western Colorado. This question is critical because the most effective investment strategy for improving forecasts depends on if errors arise before or after the snowpack season. This study is conducted using observations from the Snow Telemetry Network, root zone soil moisture and groundwater data from the Western Land Data Assimilation Systems, and a random forest–based statistical forecasting framework.

We find that on average, antecedent root zone soil moisture and groundwater storage values do not add significant skill to seasonal water supply forecasts in western Colorado. In contrast, using precipitation and temperature data after the time of peak snowpack improves water supply forecasts significantly. The 2020 and 2021 runoffs were hampered by dry conditions both before and after the snowpack season. Both antecedent soil moisture and spring/summer precipitation data improved water supply forecast accuracy in these years.

Bio: Peter is a Climatologist for the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. Peter received his master's degree in Atmospheric Science in 2016 and was hired as a researcher. His time is split between research and education/outreach. His research focuses on the role of soil moisture in seasonal weather and water monitoring and prediction. In addition, Peter is the Colorado State Coordinator for Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS).

Seminar Contact: psl.seminars@noaa.gov