Scientists keep watch on climate and weather as drought grips Nevada

Interdisciplinary approach from University of Nevada, Reno Extension keeps people informed and involved

Lahontan Dam low water

The Lahontan Reservoir is fed by the Carson River and by the Truckee River with water diversions from the Derby Dam, supplying water for irrigation. Pictured here in 2014, in the third year of a four-year drought, much of the lake was completely dry.

Scientists keep watch on climate and weather as drought grips Nevada

Interdisciplinary approach from University of Nevada, Reno Extension keeps people informed and involved

The Lahontan Reservoir is fed by the Carson River and by the Truckee River with water diversions from the Derby Dam, supplying water for irrigation. Pictured here in 2014, in the third year of a four-year drought, much of the lake was completely dry.

Lahontan Dam low water

The Lahontan Reservoir is fed by the Carson River and by the Truckee River with water diversions from the Derby Dam, supplying water for irrigation. Pictured here in 2014, in the third year of a four-year drought, much of the lake was completely dry.

With much of the State of Nevada listed as in extreme drought, Nevadans are facing forecasts for a mild winter, with little precipitation since the rainy season started. With these designations, southern Nevadans are facing a mild and dry winter and northern Nevadans are looking at an uncertain forecast. All could face water restrictions, crop or pasture loss and, with exceptional drought, water shortage emergencies.

The University of Nevada, Reno’s Nevada State Climate Office and Living with Drought Program with University of Nevada, Reno Extension are helping meteorologists better predict Nevada’s confusing weather and helping communities contend with drought.

“We are in a significant drought in much of the state, and not starting the wet season with robust supplies of water, the D-3 (Extreme) and D-4 (Exceptional) conditions are a big concern,” Steph McAfee, director of the Nevada State Climate Office said. “Especially in southern Nevada with La Nina, it will probably be dry, but La Nina could go either way for northern Nevada. We’re already in drought, and we depend on winter to build snowpack – we had a dry fall, with a deficit too.”

La Nina is a weather pattern that is influenced by ocean temperatures off the west coast of South America, and steers most storms to the Pacific Northwest, away from southern Nevada, and leaves northern Nevada in limbo between the two zones.

“In the Las Vegas area, 90% of the water is from the Colorado River,” McAfee, who works in both Extension and the College of Science said. “Colorado has a somewhat similar La Nina response, it’s a little mixed like Nevada. Colorado is having a decent drought right now. It’s generally a little warmer here, but we are dependent on the snowpack and water from the Rockies.”

Hoover dam aerial
The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River is
at the border of Nevada and Arizona.

According to the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor released Jan. 7, 23.7% of Nevada is in Exceptional Drought (the highest designation), 48.8% is in Extreme Drought, 18.7% is in Severe Drought, and 8.5% is in Moderate Drought.

One of the most intense periods of drought in the past 20 years, since the Drought Monitor was created, began the week of Dec. 1, 2020 where exceptional drought – the most extreme classification – is affecting Nevada. That region of drought in the southern Great Basin is still expanding. While reporting has improved over time, the last weekly drought monitor update reported the driest six-month period on record, with only a trace of precipitation at the McCarran International Airport.

“It looks like the Southwest is heading into drought, which is never good news, with drought likely continuing into spring and summer,” McAfee said. “We’ll keep our eyes on it, and we’ll know more as the drought monitoring continues.”

In the large urban centers of the state, TMWA – the Truckee Meadows Water Authority – and SNWA, the Southern Nevada Water Authority – are in good shape with backups with groundwater and decent surface storage. Farmers and ranchers in rural Nevada may not be as fortunate. How rural Nevada is affected depends on various concerns, whether people rely on groundwater – or springs – which could run low depending on use. People worry about operations, buying feed and selling livestock.

“We live in an arid climate, so we know how to operate with relatively smaller amounts of water, but with drought, those methods of dealing with low precipitation are strained. SNWA has their usual winter water guidelines in place with once a week yard watering,” she said.

Nevada ranchers, water providers and public land managers rely on the U.S. Drought Monitor to keep track of climate and weather. The U.S. Drought Monitor started in 2000. Since then, the longest duration of drought (D1-D4) in Nevada lasted 269 weeks beginning on Dec. 27, 2011 and ending on Feb. 14, 2017.

Average annual average precipitation statewide is 10.3 inches. It is lower in southern Nevada – only 7.1 inches – and higher in northeastern Nevada, averaging 12.85 inches. Beyond the difference in the amount of rain and snow, there are differences in when, during the year, precipitation arrives. In southern Nevada, the summer is relatively wet, and in northern Nevada, the summer is dry.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is not a forecast; it looks backward. It’s a weekly assessment of drought conditions, based on how much precipitation did or didn’t fall, up to the Tuesday morning before the map comes out. So, for example, if a lot of rain falls in a drought area on a Wednesday, the soonest change in drought status on the map is the following week.

Drought is a slow-moving hazard, so you can be certain that an area will still be in drought if it doesn’t get rain. But it also may take more than one good rainfall to end a drought, especially if an area has been in drought for a long time.

Living with Drought
“Drought” can be difficult to define because the definition varies depending on the context in which it is used,” Kerri Jean Ormerod, who leads Extension’s Living with Drought program, said. “There might be a weather drought, or an abnormally dry period, but not a vegetative drought – if a little well-timed rain provides enough soil moisture to green up the pasture. The different types of drought highlight that drought is relative.”

The drought monitor also triggers relief programs that can help agriculture-related businesses in Nevada. Ormerod said a robust data network of on-the-ground reports shared with a larger audience would help scientists, decision-makers and communities assess and track the severity of drought. Information exchange can help scientists, communities and federal partners understand shades of drought, which is useful for response and recovery, as well as evaluation and preparedness.

flood irrigated fields
Flood irrigation in northern Nevada relies
on snowfed river water.

The Living with Drought website provides a one-stop-shop for homeowners, gardeners, farmers, ranchers, natural resource managers and others to find information they need, including current drought status information; data and tools that can be used to track and report drought impacts; and information about the basic types and causes of drought.

Ormerod conducts research and education on water, climate and drought hazards for Extension and is an assistant professor of geography with the University's College of Science. Besides helping meteorologists and others better prepare for and respond to Nevada's confusing weather, she hopes to help various groups, such as farmers, ranchers, emergency management personnel and research scientists, to make better-informed decisions.

Facing a dearth of equipment and data, University of Nevada, Reno climatologists and weather experts work to build a conduit of information that will improve the accuracy of climate and weather impacts from around the state.

“We are always looking to increase climate monitoring and research,” Ormerod said. “There aren’t a lot of weather stations. There’s a paucity of data – so not a lot of information to work from to say it’s a drought, and not a lot of data to inform decisions. Nevada has a problematic landscape. It’s hard to do remote sensing and gather data, so we facilitate partnerships at the federal, state and local level, and down to the ground for reports, to characterize the climate outlooks.”

The Living with Drought Program works closely with the Climate Office, Desert Research Institute, National Weather Service and the Nevada Resource Conservation District, as well as other organizations, to gather information.

"If we can collect more data on our precipitation and weather, and analyze and explain it, it can serve several purposes," Ormerod said. "As the driest state in the nation, it is especially important to report zeros, or the lack of precipitation. This is critical information necessary to track and respond to drought."

She said they are recruiting volunteer observers from "anywhere and everywhere" across the state through either the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network or a related citizen science platform designed for drought monitoring.

“We can provide rain gauges for rural observers,” she said. “Even getting a month of zeros from observers is okay; zeros are data too. We also ask for photos and data from ranchers and others who know the landscape of our state. There lots of variability with the climate here. There is no normal, even as to time of year, so we like to get reports from people who know the landscape, like skiers, ranchers, dog walkers, hikers and hunters. We want to know how drought is affecting local conditions. Having a photo of a dry riverbed, greened-up grazing lands, a snowless landscape or a raging river helps us quantify what’s happening with our weather and climate.”

Walker River
The Walker River at low water flow.

The Community Collaborative Network is active in all 50 states, several Canadian Provinces and parts of the Caribbean. Nevada began participating in 2007, with the University’s Extension, Desert Research Institute and National Weather Service working together to coordinate the state program. The volunteers measure and map precipitation – rain, hail and snow – using low-cost measurement tools, mainly a 4-inch rain gauge. It takes these weather observers just a couple minutes each day to measure precipitation in their backyards. Training is provided online.

“My message to potential weather observers: you can help, get involved – we need you,” Ormerod said.

The Living with Drought Program, in addition to facilitating drought impact reporting, facilitates landscape condition monitoring, such as low reservoir levels, poor rangeland conditions and increased groundwater use. This locally sourced data are used by scientists to better understand drought conditions across the state, which helps to characterize local, regional and national depictions of drought.

Collectively, these reports serve to improve drought assessment and reduce vulnerability to drought faced by individuals, communities, species and environments. The drought monitor informs and becomes policy, such as a trigger for federal recovery funds for agriculture and land management decisions.

“The Drought Monitor isn’t a simply a map; it’s the best assessment of where there is drought, and the severity of drought,” Ormerod said. “Volunteer-submitted information helps to complement more traditional metrics and can bridge some of the data gaps across the state.”  

This statewide outreach to Nevadans for climate and drought is helpful day-to-day and season-to-season, and Extension also looks to the future, working with the water agencies, land managers and other stakeholders to find solutions to the long-term effects that changing climate has on Nevada and its reliance on a changing snowpack, reservoirs and groundwater.

Water research addresses water managers’ information needs
Of the many forward-looking climate initiatives of which Extension is a part, perhaps the most comprehensive effort has been the recent Water for the Seasons five-year collaborative research and outreach program, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation Water Sustainability and Climate Program. Based in the Truckee-Carson River System, Extension designed and coordinated an interdisciplinary research approach that included hydrologists, engineers and resource economists working with stakeholders representing diverse and competing municipal, industrial, agricultural, environmental and regulatory water management organizations from the system’s headwaters to its terminus.

“Demand is diverse for water – and includes sustaining wildlife and wildlife habitat, irrigated agriculture, growing municipal populations and economic development initiatives,” Loretta Singletary, an interdisciplinary outreach liaison and economist with Extension, said. “Water for the Seasons sought to find solutions to variable water supply in a changing climate. Drought is just one symptom of climate change, and we worked on climate and water supply projections for snowfed lands in northern Nevada’s high-desert environment, looking at temperature variability, less snowpack and earlier snowmelt.”

 Derby Dam
The Derby Dam diverts Truckee River Water
to Lahontan Reservoir for agricultural use.

Singletary’s research and outreach programs focus on the role of water markets as a climate adaptation strategy as well as collaborative research processes, engaging community stakeholders as part of an integrated water management approach to address water supply variability, water scarcity and water quality issues.

Water for the Seasons aimed to identify new strategies for enhancing the resiliency of communities in northern Nevada to adapt to these challenges and changes. The research team, working closely with local water managers, integrated climate, hydrologic and economics research with extensive outreach to identify the expected impacts of climate change and solutions for protecting valuable water resources throughout northern Nevada.

What they found with the Water for the Seasons project might have been based in northern Nevada, but the reliance on snowpack for water and related challenges to water supply is also key to southern Nevada water availability, which relies on the Rocky Mountains and Colorado River.

“With 12 primary water management organizations with critical roles in the Truckee-Carson watershed and a total of 66 organizations that participated in an initial assessment, the project identified climate change impacts as an important challenge to sustaining water supply. The project succeeded in identifying and investigating specific climate adaptation recommendations,” Singletary said. “It’s a case study for snowfed arid lands, which can inform decisions in similar snowfed river systems in the semi-arid West and around the world.”

Using the input from water management stakeholders, the research team modeled their information needs under plausible projected climate scenarios, such as warmer temperatures and pervasive drought, and how these conditions affect the river system and water supply across the system. The hydrologists, climatologists, resource economists and political scientists worked alongside local water managers to identify climate change impacts to water resources, to develop and simulate climate scenarios that test river system resiliency, and to examine the effectiveness of potential adaptation strategies to mitigate identified impacts.

“We purposefully and strategically work with decision makers to benefit the public,” Singletary said. “If key stakeholders participate in the research process from the beginning, collaboration is harnessed. It legitimizes both stakeholders’ interests as well as research and research findings. We involved water managers in the research to intentionally represent the diverse water uses that typify these snowfed systems. We wanted to know what are the system’s tipping points, what aspects of river system management might adapt to become more climate resilient – whether it’s water for cities and towns, crops, livestock, rangeland, environmental instream flows or industry.”

“All stakeholders who participated agreed that more outreach education is needed, to stress that we live in the desert, and there’s not an endless supply of water, even though when you turn on the tap you get water,” Singletary added. “We need education in water conservation – land use, building and other uses – based on knowing that we live in a desert, and drought stresses this further.”

The research team developed 10 key takeaways from the Water for the Seasons collaborative research program, which they published in Extension Special Publication 20-02, Water Sustainability and Climate in the Truckee-Carson River System.

Some of those takeaways include:

  • climate projections across the river system generally show warmer temperatures and increased water supply variability;
  • measurable snowpack changes affect the timing and availability of water supply;
  • cycles of wet and dry years are important for evaluating future basin water supply and reservoir operation;
  • allowing for storing water earlier in the year could enhance water supply;
  • aquifer recharge can mitigate long-term impacts;
  • and there is a need for additional collaborative research.

“One challenge that surfaced from this project is that we learned that we needed more time,” Singletary said. “At the end of the five-year study, the project collaborators asked if we could keep meeting to continue the research. We really need 10-15 years to firmly establish a comprehensive integrated and collaborative research and outreach program, with more resources for education outreach to disseminate research findings. While it is clear that our climate is changing and that we need to adapt accordingly, it’s promising that water managers and water users are already pursuing climate adaptation to enhance our water and climate resiliency.”

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