Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5056—Version 1.1

Snowmelt Discharge Characteristics Sierra Nevada, California

By David Peterson, Richard Smith, Iris Stewart, Noah Knowles, Chris Soulard, and Stephen Hager


This report is available as a pdf.



Alpine snow is an important water resource in California and the western U.S. Three major features of alpine snowmelt are the spring pulse (the first surge in snowmelt-driven river discharge in spring), maximum snowmelt discharge, and base flow (low river discharge supported by groundwater in fall). A long term data set of hydrologic measurements at 24 gage locations in 20 watersheds in the Sierra Nevada was investigated to relate patterns of snowmelt with stream discharge In wet years, the daily variations in snowmelt discharge at all the gage locations in the Sierra Nevada correlate strongly with the centrally located Merced River at Happy Isles, Yosemite National Park (i.e., in 1983, the mean of the 23 correlations was R= 0.93 + 0.09) ; in dry years, however, this correlation breaks down (i.e., in year 1977, R=0.72 + 0.24). A general trend towards earlier snowmelt was found and modeled using correlations with the timing of the spring pulse and the river discharge center of mass. For the 24 river and creek gage locations in this study, the spring pulse appeared to be a more sensitive measure of early snowmelt than the center of mass. The amplitude of maximum daily snowmelt discharge correlates strongly with initial snow water equivalent. Geologic factors, base rock permeability and soil-to-bedrock ratio, influence snowmelt flow pathways. Although both surface and ground water flows and water levels increase in wet years compared to dry years, the increase was greater for surface water in a watershed with relatively impermeable base rock than for surface water in a watershed with highly permeable base rock The relation was the opposite for base flow (ground water). The increase was greater for groundwater in a watershed with permeable rock compared to ground water in a watershed with impermeable rock. A similar, but weaker, surface/groundwater partitioning was observed in relatively impermeable granitic watersheds with differing soil-to-bedrock ratios. The increase in surface flow was greater in a watershed with a low, compared to a high, soil-to-bedrock ratio; whereas the increase in ground water flow was greater in a watershed with a high, compared to a low, soil-to-bedrock ratio. Transects that include long-term observations of shallow well-water depth and chemistry would complement traditional hydroclimate data and provide a more complete understanding of hydrologic controls of snowmelt.




Purpose and Scope

Data and Methods

Results and Discussion


Air Temperature and River Discharge

Spring Pulse

Maximum Discharge

Base Flow






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Errata Sheet


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