Visualizing California’s Water Storage – Reservoirs and Snowpack

Posted In: Environment | Water

How much water is stored in California’s snowpack and reservoirs?

Check out the California reservoir dashboard, California snow pack visualizer and the California precipitation visualizer

California’s snow pack is essentially another “reservoir” that is able to store water in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Graphing these things together can give a better picture of the state of California’s water and drought.

The historical median (i.e. 50th percentile) for snow pack water content is stacked on top of the median for reservoirs storage (shown in two shades of blue).  The current water year reservoirs is shown in orange and the current year’s snow pack measurement is stacked on top in green.  What is interesting is that the typical peak snow pack (around April 1) holds almost as much water (about 2/3 as much) as the reservoirs typically do.  However, the reservoirs can store these volumes for much of the year while the snow pack is very seasonal and only does so for a short period of time.

Snowpack is measured at 125 different snow sensor sites throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains. The reservoir value is the total of 50 of the largest reservoirs in California.  In both cases, the median is derived from calculating the median values for each day of the year from historical data from these locations from 1970 to 2021.

I’ve been slowly building out the water tracking visualizations tools/dashboards on this site. And with the recent rains (January 2023), there has been quite a bit of interest in these visualizations.  One data visualization that I’ve wanted to create is to combine the precipitation and reservoir data into one overarching figure.

Creating the graph

I recently saw one such figure on Twitter by Mike Dettinger, a researcher who studies water/climate issues. The graph shows the current reservoir and snowpack water content overlaid on the historic levels.  It is a great graph that conveys quite a bit of info and I thought I would create an interactive version of these while utilizing the automated data processing that’d I’d already created to make my other graphs/dashboards.

The challenge was to convert inches of snow water equivalent into a total volume of water in the snowpack, which I asked Mike about. He pointed me to a paper by Margulis et al 2016 that estimates the total volume of water in the Sierra snowpack for 31 years.  Since I already had downloaded data on historical snow water equivalents for these same years, I could correlate the estimated peak snow water volume (in cubic km) to the inches of water at these 120 or so Sierra snow sensor sites.  I ran a linear regression on these 30 data points. This allowed me to estimate a scaling factor that converts the inches of water equivalent to a volume of liquid water (and convert to thousands of acre feet, which is the same unit as reservoirs are measured in).

California Snow Visualization

This scaling factor allows me to then graph the snowpack water volume with the reservoir volumes.

See my snowpack visualization/post to see more about snow water equivalents.

My numbers may differ slightly from the numbers reported on the state’s website. The historical percentiles that I calculated are from 1970 until 2020 while I notice the state’s average is between 1990 and 2020.

You can hover (or click) on the graph to audit the data a little more clearly.

Sources and Tools

Data is downloaded from the California Data Exchange Center website of the California Department of Water Resources using a python script. The data is processed in javascript and visualized here using HTML, CSS and javascript and the open source Plotly javascript graphing library.

California Snow Visualization




2 Comments »


2 Responses to Visualizing California’s Water Storage – Reservoirs and Snowpack

  1. Jason says:

    This is so cool, thank you!

  2. Mike says:

    Really well done, thank you.

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