Atmospheric River Research

Atmospheric river storms provide approximately half of California’s annual precipitation, but also are the cause of more than 90 percent of the floods in Northern California, resulting in staggering financial costs.

Those costs are all too familiar to Yuba County, which experienced devastating flooding in both 1986 and 1997. Elements of Yuba County’s economy have never recovered.

PartnershipsA photo of New Bullards Bar Dam with water being released from the spillway

Yuba Water Agency is partnering with the UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the California Department of Water Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Weather Service and others on atmospheric river research and development of new tools specific to the Yuba and Feather River watersheds. This work, combined with Yuba Water’s planned Secondary Spillway, will substantially reduce flood risk, with potential water supply benefits as well. 

The research is focused on the Yuba and Feather River watersheds simultaneously, as Bullards and Oroville dams are operated in coordination to minimize downstream flood impacts.

All of this will be vitally important to address the adverse flood and water supply impacts expected with changing hydrology due to climate change.

Research Efforts

Throughout the winter months, Scripps scientists launched weather balloons, called radiosondes, from two locations in Yuba County. The weather balloons measure and collect temperature, pressure, moisture and wind data to help researchers better understand the vertical structure of the atmosphere during storms, to improve atmospheric river forecasting. Researchers also use radar and dropping airborne sensors from aircraft flying above the storms while they are still out over the Pacific Ocean (similar to “Hurricane Hunters”), to help build a robust data collection.

An aerial photo taken from a plane looking down on clouds sitting over the Pacific Ocean     A photo of Yuba Water Agency Water Operations Projects Manager John James holding a full weather bal

This research and the actions that will result from it are critical for the people of Yuba County. This video tells the story of the flooding this area has experienced and the steps Yuba Water Agency has been implementing, and continues to do, in an effort to reduce the flood risk and better protect the people who live and work in this region.