From Drought To Deluge: Gauging The Impact Of Western Rains

Source: Water Online

By Kevin Westerling,


For a number of years now, we have heard of dwindling water supplies in the western part of the U.S., but 2023 brought "atmospheric rivers" that (literally) flooded the Golden State and filled 12 of its 17 major reservoirs above their historical averages for the start of spring. It's a double-edged sword when such extreme weather arises, and obviously important to learn from the experience to better prepare for future events and plan for both resiliency and sustainability.

To help understand the impacts, as well as the tools at our disposal to predict, measure, and act on weather and water supply data, I spoke with Dr. Mike Flaxman, Spatial Data Science Practice Lead at HEAVY.AI. In addition to receiving his doctorate in design from Harvard University, Dr. Flaxman has served on Harvard's faculty, as well as the faculties of MIT and the University of Oregon (where he received a master’s in Community and Regional Planning). Furthering his impressive credentials, Dr. Flaxman was a Fulbright fellow and has served as an advisor to the Interamerican Development Bank, the World Bank, and the National Science Foundation. Before joining HEAVY.AI, he worked as industry manager for Architecture, Engineering and Construction at ESRI, the world’s largest developer of GIS technology.

Read on to learn more about the use of water resources and how science and technology are utilized to better manage what Mother Nature does or doesn’t deliver.

Water in the western U.S. has been a hot topic in recent years, primarily because of drought and shortages, but 2023 weather patterns and events have helped to bolster some water resources. What is the status of western water supplies for spring and the rest of 2023?

Weather extremes related to climate change have created drought conditions in various locations around the globe. However, this year, winter precipitation wiped out exceptional and extreme drought altogether in California for the first time since 2020. That contrasts with last year when the state experienced the driest first quarter in over a century. This is a trend being seen across the U.S., with drought coverage at its lowest since August 2020, and more abnormally wet weather expected to further improve drought conditions. However, not everywhere in the western U.S. is experiencing the same level of drought relief. Some areas in Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico continue to have extreme drought conditions, although now less so than in months and the year prior.

Drinking water supply is understandably a primary and existential concern, but there are other vitally important uses such as for food supply and power. Please explain the supply demands for industry and the downstream impact on society.

Water is one of the most basic human needs and intersects nearly every avenue of daily life.

When we think of water, we often think of direct uses which include drinking, bathing, and cooking. However, most of the world’s water is used for indirect purposes like agriculture, industry, and electricity.

One of the oldest and largest sources of renewable energy produced in the United States is hydropower, with it accounting for 31.5% of the renewable energy produced in the U.S. If a lot of water is flowing through the system, a lot of power can be produced. Conversely, if water amounts decline, then hydroelectric plants must go offline, which can have a disastrous impact on downstream consumers, industries, and business.

This fluctuation in output has major implications in states like Washington where 67% of electricity generated comes from hydroelectric power. Less hydroelectric power is produced in California but is still a major electricity source. The California Public Policy Institute reports wet years can generate 20% of power from renewable hydropower sources, compared to dry years, when only 7% of the state’s electricity is generated from it. This impacts the availability of power for utilities, which eventually can trickle down in the form of price hikes and rolling blackouts for billpayers.

Specifically for hydropower, what are the forecasts for water availability and the significance of those projections?

With the current snowpack levels above 200% in some places, it is fair to predict that snowmelt will create a flow of water that will boost hydroelectric power production. This boost of power generation will build on a greater trend being tracked by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which reports after dropping to a 20-year low in 2020 and 2021, hydropower production in the western U.S. increased slightly last year.

This increase in electricity being produced will be especially helpful during the summertime heatwaves when power grids come under strain with increased demand from consumers.

How is forecasting conducted? How are the different data points combined to create a clear picture — and what does that picture indicate?

Winter snowpack directly relates to how much water will be available all year round across the western U.S. Since water is such a valuable resource, it is important to understand how much of it is being stored in snowpacks.

Today, a variety of tools are used to measure snowpacks to forecast water availability. A combination of data scientists with snowshoes, drones, ground penetrating radar, light detection and ranging (lidar) technology, and satellite images work together to paint the full picture of snowpack levels. This gives forecasters and scientists an abundance of data flowing in real time and advanced analytics tools allow them to converge multiple data sets to review all this data and layer it to have a full view of snowpack status. When machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are then applied to the data sets, scientists can make highly accurate predictions about water availability from snowpack which can impact drought status/regulations and hydroelectric production, which in turn impacts utility prices and availability for consumers.

How are the data and analyses used by industry and/or water utilities?

Government meteorologists and national hydrology experts measure and provide snowpack information to forecast spring run-off to determine water allocations for the year ahead. This information is used by city planners, farmers, and utilities to determine how much water will be available and how much power can be produced by hydroelectric sources.

With this forecasting data, utilities have a greater and more accurate understanding of what power will be available to their consumers and can adjust pricing as needed. Pricing can then be used to balance the load being pulled. So, if there is less power available, utilities will raise prices to decrease the demand and spread the load demand across the day.

What are the technological advancements that can improve operations and efficiency?

Right now, in California, major reservoirs are at 107% of their average levels and the statewide snowpack is 227% of the average, compared to last year when the state experienced the driest first quarter in over a century. This dramatic shift in hydro availability will impact operations at hydroelectric power plants across the west, and to be prepared to operate most efficiently, they need awareness of how much water is available to create electricity.

Rather than having various, disparate data sources of this increase in available water that cannot be viewed and analyzed simultaneously, advanced analytics converges all relevant data into a single dashboard so data scientists can review all factors in play concurrently. This means more accurate predictions and forecasts of water availability and an increase in understanding of possible opportunities and risks associated with current water levels. By leveraging historical data and current market needs, an advanced analytics tool can forecast multiple future scenarios to give operators the most comprehensive picture of impact. Additionally, leveraging AI as part of these forecasting tools further advances forecast accuracy and potential outcomes from a multitude of factors.