A guide for new machine learning and hydrology enthusiasts

We compiled a list of resources and reads to get you started, and acquainted, with the world of machine learning and hydrology.

Apr 17, 2023
Table of contents

The application of machine learning as a viable tool in the sciences is becoming increasingly more prominent, especially regarding its potential, and relevance, with tackling climate change and its corresponding issues. Not the least of which are the changing dynamics of water and how they behave with ever-increasing unpredictability.

As such, we’ve compiled a list of key reads and recommendations to get you started on this journey. What was our ‘why’ behind HydroForecast? What are places like California, that are known for droughts and issues of unpredictable water, doing to tackle the problem? What academic papers cover how machine learning is becoming the state-of-the-art" for hydrologic forecasting, if applied with hydrologic principles implicit in the approach?

Look no further. Take a look at our compiled resources – divided by rough categories – warm up a tea or coffee, and get to reading!


Toward Improved Predictions in Ungauged Basins: Exploiting the Power of Machine Learning 

  • HydroForecast’s theory-guided machine learning approach to hydrologic forecasting blends hydrologic science with the computational power of machine learning. In our first peer-reviewed paper, published in Water Resources Research and co-authored with our academic collaborators, we demonstrated how an early version of our model outperformed traditional conceptual models, even though those models were calibrated to each basin individually, while our model was predicting “ungauged” in basins it had never seen before.

HydroForecast Featured in Water Power Magazine

  • When it comes to streamflow forecasting, can AI models beat existing approaches? Marshall Moutenot of Upstream Tech discusses which problems AI is a good fit for, when it’s not a great choice, and how to apply it most effectively.

Developing Tools to Model Impaired Streamflow in Streams Throughout California 

  • Upstream Tech and The Nature Conservancy in California are partnering to combine our cutting edge technology and deep environmental science expertise to support water policy and planning across the state. Through a multi-phase and multi-year agreement, we are modeling streamflow across hundreds of gaged and ungaged basins in California to inform three main efforts: environmental flows planning, water allocation decisions, and gage prioritization.

HydroForecast Accurately Predicts Rain on Snow Event in California 

  • HydroForecast’s unique combination of physical and statistical modeling creates a powerful tool for water managers to de-risk decisions leading up to difficult-to-forecast events such as rain on snow. Moreover, its neural network core enables it to assess a wider breadth of factors such as SNODAS and MODIS satellite data, along with multiple weather forecasts, and weight each factor to present as accurate a forecast as possible.

Case Study: Hurricane Ida Hits Tennessee: How HydroForecast Helps Prepare for Extreme Weather 

  • Hurricane Ida was an extremely powerful Atlantic hurricane that moved through the Southern United States at the end of August, 2021. When Hurricane Ida hit, the additional heavy rainfall increased the operational challenges for organizations in a region that is already heavily rain-driven, where flashy storms can occur quickly particularly in the summer months. To improve outcomes during such events, HydroForecast uses a unique combination of statistical modeling constrained by physical processes in a neural network framework. This combination allows the model to quickly interpret a wide variety of data sources and deliver highly accurate forecasts even in scenarios that lie outside of the historical record. This piece shows an example of how HydroForecast predicted the impacts of Hurricane Ida in the Emory River at Oakdale, Tennessee, between August 31 - September 3, 2021.

Idaho National Lab study finds HydroForecast can improve hydropower earnings by 3-6% 

  • A team at Idaho National Lab led a research effort to create a hydropower flexibility valuation tool to explore tradeoffs between different proposed regulatory operating constraints and their potential impact on revenue at a hydropower plant. Upstream Tech shared our forecasts with the research team to test if improved reservoir inflow forecasts could enable operators to meet additional constraints while maintaining or increasing revenue. The study found that during the highest revenue months, using HydroForecast increased asset revenue by 6.4% over operations informed by a persistence forecast — almost as much as if the operator had perfect foresight into future inflows!


Challenges of Forecasting Water Supply in a Hotter Climate

  • The Department of Water Resources (DWR) is embracing a fundamental shift away from reliance on historical patterns and is investing heavily in improving forecast data collection and is focusing on the dramatic changes in California’s watersheds. Over $4 million has been provided by Governor Newsom to expand the Aerial Remote Sensing of Snow program, also known as ASO, which increases and modernizes the amount of data collected on the state snowpack and additional funding has been provided to upgrade electronic monitoring stations across the Sierra Nevada to provide additional details on soil moisture and atmospheric conditions.

Challenges of Forecasting Water Supply During Extreme Weather Events

  • California has the largest year-to-year variability in hydrologic outcomes of anywhere in the United States, and this year has clearly demonstrated how swings between extreme conditions are becoming more intense, as the driest three-year period on record ended with one of the wettest winters on record. That is why DWR is investing in new technologies, like Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) survey flights, that increase the data and information water supply forecasts are based on.
  • DWR is also working with federal and local water agencies to develop a Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO) program to take advantage of scientific improvements in forecasting atmospheric rivers to better anticipate and manage large storm events while maximizing opportunities to increase water supply in California reservoirs. These developments are all key components of Governor Newsom’s “California’s Water Supply Strategy: Adapting to a Hotter, Drier Future”, to support water management and climate resiliency through improved forecasting and data collection.

California’s Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations Are Key to Managing Floods and Water Supplies

  • The Department of Water Resources along with federal and local water agencies, have developed a Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO) program to take advantage of scientific improvements in forecasting atmospheric rivers to better anticipate and manage large storm events while maximizing opportunities to increase water supply.

How far out can we forecast the weather? Scientists have a new answer | Science 

  • Today, the best forecasts run out to 10 days with real skill, leading meteorologists to wonder just how much further they can push useful forecasts.

Climate Change

Opinion | California’s Drought Is Worse Than We Thought - The New York Times 

  • Discusses water, drought, climate change, and modeling tools: ‘Many people have a rather simplistic view of drought as a lack of rain and snow. That’s accurate – to an extent. What it doesn’t account for is human activity and climate change that are now dramatically affecting the available water and its management. As more frequent and large wildfires and extended dry periods batter the land, our most important tools for managing water are becoming less and less accurate. At the same time, our reliance on these models to try to make the most of the little water we have is becoming more and more problematic.
  • ‘One of the most important tools for managing water during periods of drought are the models developed by various state and federal agencies. Yet these models suffer from the same simplistic view of drought and water, and they are in dire need of an update’

Probable Futures

  • Maps of how climate change will affect different parts of the world, given likely scenarios

New tools may predict wildfire season severity, rainfall months ahead

  • Researchers are developing ways to predict how much land will burn out West and where ocean heat waves will occur up to a year in advance. This year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is testing out a new tool it hopes will make those projections a little better: a model that can predict — months in advance — the summer rainfall associated with the North American Monsoon.

California Reservoirs Reflect Deepening DroughtLake Oroville: Before-and-after photos show remarkable recovery at California's most beleaguered reservoir - CNN

  • Two examples that illustrate how volatile reservoirs currently are through before and after images. Climate change is exacerbating variability, contributing to whiplash between extremes.

As glaciers melt, sudden flood risks threaten 15 million people, study finds & Major glaciers, including in Yosemite and Kilimanjaro, will be gone within 23 years due to climate change, U.N. report warns - CBS News 

  • ‘Across the world’s iciest regions, communities live with the looming threat of inland tsunamis — massive walls of water moving quickly and forcefully from melting glaciers, known as glacial lake outburst floods. A study published in Nature Communications found that around 15 million people live in danger of such glacial flooding. More than half of those at risk are in four countries: India, Pakistan, Peru and China.’
  • One-third of the world's most iconic glaciers have been "condemned to disappear" within 23 years, according to a new report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The fate of these glaciers, which include those in Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Dolomites, is all but sure, UNESCO warned, as carbon emissions cause them to rapidly deteriorate.

Drought Impacts on Hydroelectric Power Generation in the Western United States | PNNL

  • ‘This report analyzes the impacts of historical western droughts on hydroelectric power by combining two decades’ worth of annual generation—recorded at more than 600 hydroelectric power plants—with historical climate data developed for distinct hydropower climate regions of the West…The main reason for the relative stability in total western annual hydropower generation is diversity of weather conditions across the region; drought rarely impairs hydropower generation across all western river basins at the same time.’

Climate Change Is Speeding Toward Catastrophe. The Next Decade Is Crucial, U.N. Panel Says.

  • ‘Earth is likely to cross a critical threshold for global warming within the next decade, and nations will need to make an immediate and drastic shift away fossil fuels to prevent the planet from overheating dangerously beyond that level, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’

Water, general

The Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, is a great resource that regularly publishes key content around California water.

Priorities for California's Water 

  • ‘This report considers the state of water in California: What changes are we seeing now, and what should we expect in the near future? Then it examines how these climate shifts will impact urban and rural communities, agriculture, and the environment. Finally, it explores wet-year strategies that will help Californians get through the dry years.’


Water 4.0, David Sedlak

  • A book that investigates the ‘The little-known story of the systems that bring us our drinking water, how they were developed, the problems they are facing, and how they will be reinvented’

Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner and Reflections on Cadillac Desert, Jay Lund

  • The story of the American West is the story of a relentless quest for a precious resource: water. It is a tale of rivers diverted and dammed, of political corruption and intrigue, of billion-dollar battles over water rights, of ecological and economic disaster. In his landmark book, Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner writes of the earliest settlers, lured by the promise of paradise, and of the ruthless tactics employed by Los Angeles politicians and business interests to ensure the city's growth. 

And finally, we’d be remiss to not credit our own inspiration for this list: Jay Lund’s California Water blog by Jay Lund, alongside the wonderful resource Lund originally compiled on water and California.

Happy reading!