How evaporative water losses vary between wet and dry water years as a function of elevation in the Sierra Nevada, California, and critical factors for modeling



[1] High altitude basins in the Sierra Nevada, California, have negligible summer precipitation and very little groundwater storage, making them ideal laboratories for indirectly monitoring changes in evaporative losses between wet and dry years. Dry years typically have greater potential evapotranspiration (ET) due to warmer June and July air temperatures, warmer summer water/soil temperatures, greater solar radiation exposure due to less frequent cloud cover, greater vapor pressure deficit, and longer growing seasons. However, dry years also have limited moisture availability compared to wetter years, and thus actual evapotranspiration is much less than the potential in dry years. The balance of these factors varies with elevation. Here, we use gridded temperature, precipitation, and snow data, along with historic streamflow records in two nested basins of the Merced River, California, and a simple model to determine the following: Annual ET increases in wetter years at midelevations (2100–2600 m), but this pattern can only be represented in model simulations that include some representation of water transfer between higher and lower elevation soil reservoirs. At higher elevations (>2600 m), greater water availability in wet years is offset by shorter growing seasons due to longer snow cover duration. These results suggest that models seeking to represent changes in ET in mountainous terrain must, at a minimum, include both hillslope processes (water transfer down steep slopes) and snow processes (timing of water and energy supply).