Skip to main content
ARS Home » Pacific West Area » Tucson, Arizona » SWRC » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #341544

Research Project: Understanding Water-Driven Ecohydrologic and Erosion Processes in the Semiarid Southwest to Improve Watershed Management

Location: Southwest Watershed Research Center

Title: Observed hydrologic impacts of landfalling atmospheric rivers in the Salt and Verde River basins of Arizona, United States

Author
item Demaria, Eleonora
item Dominguez, F. - University Of Illinois
item Hu, H. - University Of Illinois
item Von Glinski, G. - White Mountain Apache Tribe
item Robles, M. - Nature Conservancy
item Skindlov, J. - Salt River Project
item Walter, J. - Salt River Project

Submitted to: Water Resources Research
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 10/4/2017
Publication Date: 10/9/2017
Citation: Demaria, E.M., Dominguez, F., Hu, H., Von Glinski, G., Robles, M., Skindlov, J., Walter, J. 2017. Observed hydrologic impacts of landfalling atmospheric rivers in the Salt and Verde River basins of Arizona, United States. Water Resources Research. 53:1-18. https://doi.org/10.1002/2017WR020778.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/2017WR020778

Interpretive Summary: Within the Salt and Verde River basins in the semiarid northeastern Arizona, natural ecosystems and humans compete for over-allocated water resources. The basins are highly dependent on winter precipitation for ecosystem functioning, water supply, fire suppression, and in the case of extreme events, for water quality, flood control and dam safety. Atmospheric Rivers (ARs) which are narrow corridors of concentrated water vapor that bring copious amount of rainfall from the Pacific into the region and contribute to its hydrology by increasing snow pack and replenishing soil moisture in the basins. ARs are also responsible for extreme precipitation and streamflow events, such as the 1993 flooding event, which caused human casualties and economic losses. These results illustrate the importance of AR activity on the hydrology of inland semiarid regions: ARs are critical for maintaining natural ecosystem health, but they can also lead to extreme flooding that affects infrastructure and human activities.

Technical Abstract: Atmospheric Rivers (ARs), narrow atmospheric water vapor corridors, can contribute substantially to winter precipitation in the semiarid Southwest U.S., where natural ecosystems and humans compete for over-allocated water resources. We investigate the hydrologic impacts of 122 ARs that occurred in the Salt and Verde River basins in northeastern Arizona during the cold seasons from 1979-2009. We focus on the relationship between precipitation, snow water equivalent (SWE), soil moisture, and extreme flooding. During the cold season (October through March) ARs contribute an average of 25/29% of total seasonal precipitation for the Salt/Verde River basins, respectively. However, they contribute disproportionately to heavy precipitation and account for 64%/72% of extreme daily precipitation (exceeding the 98th percentile). Excess precipitation during AR occurrences contributes to snow accumulation; on the other hand, warmer than normal temperatures during AR landfallings are linked to rain-on-snow processes, an increase in the basins’ area contributing to runoff generation, and higher melting lines. Although not all AR events are linked to extreme flooding in the basins, they do account for larger runoff coefficients. On average, ARs generate 43% of the annual maximum flows for the period studied, with 25% of the events exceeding the 10-year return period. Our analysis shows that the devastating 1993 flooding event in the region was caused by AR events. These results illustrate the importance of AR activity on the hydrology of inland semiarid regions: ARs are critical for maintaining natural ecosystem health, but they can also lead to extreme flooding that affects infrastructure and human activities.