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Water Storage in the Atmosphere

Cycle of Water: Atmospheric Water Storage

A lenticular cloud over New Zealand.
Lenticular cloud / New Zealand.
Photo Credit: Chris Picking

The cycle of water is about storing and moving water on, in, and high above the Earth. While the atmosphere may not be a perfect warehouse of water, it is the pipeline used to transport water around the world. Evaporation / transpiration morph liquid to water vapor, which rises up to the atmosphere on rising currents of air. The cooler temperatures high above allow the condenses the vapor into the clouds and trade winds push the clouds around the globe until the water drops as rainfall to further the water cycle. More than 90 percent of h2O in the atmosphere is created by evaporation from bodies of water, while the other 10 +/- % is the result of plant transpiration.

There is perpetually water in our atmosphere. Clouds are the most visible signals of atmospheric water, but clear air contains water vapor, particles of water too small to be seen by the naked eye. One guess of the volume of h2O in the atmosphere at any time is about approximately 3,000 cubic miles, or 12,800 cubic km. (km3). That may sound substantial, but it represents only about 0.001 percent of the planet’s water volume. If all of the h2O in the atmosphere fell at once, it would cover the globe with only about 1 inch of water.


Ground Water


Groundwater, when pumped up from underneath the planet’s surface, is usually cheaper, easier to access and is less vulnerable to being polluted than water found on the earth’s surface. Because of this, it is normally used in public water supply chains. Groundwater is the largest single source of potable water storage in the USA. Underground aquifers possess much more water compared to the capacity of reservoirs and lakes, and this includes the Great Lakes. Some USA municipalities rely only on groundwater.

Professional hydrologists judge the estimated volume of underground water by taking water levels in locally sunk wells and by looking closely at the geologic record after well-drilling to help determine the breadth and depth of water-containing sediments, as well as rocks. Before a commitment is made to a full-sized well, hydrologists may require the drilling of a test well, or multiple test wells. They study  the depths where water is found and inspect samples of soil, rocks and the water for lab analyses. They often perform a wide range of geophysical tests on the finished well, maintaining an accurate log of what they find and the test results. Hydrologists can then determine pumping efficiency rate by watching the degree to which water levels drop in the test well and others close by. Pumping too fast may cause it to dry up or interfere with other wells nearby. Near the coast, too much pumping can allow for saltwater intrusion. By analyzing the data, hydrologists can closely estimate the maximum, minimum and optimum output of the well.

surface water

Surface Water

Most cities meet their needs for water by withdrawing it from the nearest river, lake or reservoir. Hydrologists help cities by collecting and analyzing the data needed to predict how much water is available from local supplies and whether it will be sufficient to meet the city’s projected future needs. To do this, hydrologists study records of rainfall, snowpack depths and river flows that are collected and compiled by hydrologists in various government agencies. They inventory the extent river flow already is being used by others.

Managing reservoirs can be quite complex, because they generally serve many purposes. Reservoirs increase the reliability of local water supplies. Hydrologists use topographic maps and aerial photographs to determine where the reservoir shorelines will be and to calculate reservoir depths and storage capacity. This work ensures that, even at maximum capacity, no highways, railroads or homes would be flooded.

Deciding how much water to release and how much to store depends upon the time of year, flow predictions for the next several months, and the needs of irrigators and cities as well as downstream water-users that rely on the reservoir. If the reservoir also is used for recreation or for generation of hydroelectric power, those requirements must be considered. Decisions must be coordinated with other reservoir managers along the river. Hydrologists collect the necessary information, enter it into a computer, and run computer models to predict the results under various operating strategies. On the basis of these studies, reservoir managers can make the best decision for those involved.

The availability of surface water for swimming, drinking, industrial or other uses sometimes is restricted because of pollution. Pollution can be merely an unsightly and inconvenient nuisance, or it can be an invisible, but deadly, threat to the health of people, plants and animals.

Hydrologists assist public health officials in monitoring public water supplies to ensure that health standards are met. When pollution is discovered, environmental engineers work with hydrologists in devising the necessary sampling program. Water quality in estuaries, streams, rivers and lakes must be monitored, and the health of fish, plants and wildlife along their stretches surveyed. Related work concerns acid rain and its effects on aquatic life, and the behavior of toxic metals and organic chemicals in aquatic environments. Hydrologic and water quality mathematical models are developed and used by hydrologists for planning and management and predicting water quality effects of changed conditions. Simple analyses such as pH, turbidity, and oxygen content may be done by hydrologists in the field. Other chemical analyses require more sophisticated laboratory equipment. In the past, municipal and industrial sewage was a major source of pollution for streams and lakes. Such wastes often received only minimal treatment, or raw wastes were dumped into rivers. Today, we are more aware of the consequences of such actions, and billions of dollars must be invested in pollution-control equipment to protect the waters of the earth. Other sources of pollution are more difficult to identify and control. These include road deicing salts, storm runoff from urban areas and farmland, and erosion from construction sites.


What is hydrology and what do hydrologists do?

Water is one of our most precious natural resources. Without it, there would be no life on earth. Hydrology has evolved as a science in response to the need to understand the complex water system of the earth and help solve water problems. This hydrology primer gives you information about water on Earth and humans’ involvement and use of water.

Water is one of our most important natural resources. Without it, there would be no life on earth. The supply of water available for our use is limited by nature. Although there is plenty of water on earth, it is not always in the right place, at the right time and of the right quality. Adding to the problem is the increasing evidence that chemical wastes improperly discarded yesterday are showing up in our water supplies today. Hydrology has evolved as a science in response to the need to understand the complex water systems of the Earth and help solve water problems. Hydrologists play a vital role in finding solutions to water problems, and interesting and challenging careers are available to those who choose to study hydrology.

Water and People

Estimates of water use in the United States indicate that about 355 billion gallons per day (one thousand million gallons per day, abbreviated Bgal/d) were withdrawn for all uses during 2010. This total has declined about 17 percent since 1980. Fresh groundwater withdrawals (76.0 Bgal/d) during 2010 were 8 percent less than during 1980. Fresh surface-water withdrawals for 2010 were 230 Bgal/d, 18 percent less than in 1980.

Much of our water use is hidden. Think about what you had for lunch. A hamburger, for example, requires water to raise wheat for the bun, to grow hay and corn to feed the cattle and to process the bread and beef. Together with french fries and a soft drink, this all-American meal uses about 1,500 gallons of water–enough to fill a small swimming pool. How about your clothes? To grow cotton for a pair of jeans takes about 400 gallons. A shirt requires about 400 gallons. How do you get to school or to the store? To produce the amount of finished steel in a car has in the past required about 32,000 gallons of water. Similarly, the steel in a 30-pound bicycle required 480 gallons. This shows that industry must continue to strive to reduce water use through manufacturing processes that use less water, and through recycling of water.

What is Hydrology?

Hydrology is the science that encompasses the occurrence, distribution, movement and properties of the waters of the earth and their relationship with the environment within each phase of the hydrologic cycle. The water cycle, or hydrologic cycle, is a continuous process by which water is purified by evaporation and transported from the earth’s surface (including the oceans) to the atmosphere and back to the land and oceans. All of the physical, chemical and biological processes involving water as it travels its various paths in the atmosphere, over and beneath the earth’s surface and through growing plants, are of interest to those who study the hydrologic cycle. There are many pathways the water may take in its continuous cycle of falling as rainfall or snowfall and returning to the atmosphere. It may be captured for millions of years in polar ice caps. It may flow to rivers and finally to the sea. It may soak into the soil to be evaporated directly from the soil surface as it dries or be transpired by growing plants. It may percolate through the soil to ground water reservoirs (aquifers) to be stored or it may flow to wells or springs or back to streams by seepage. The cycle for water may be short, or it may take millions of years. People tap the water cycle for their own uses. Water is diverted temporarily from one part of the cycle by pumping it from the ground or drawing it from a river or lake. It is used for a variety of activities such as households, businesses and industries; for irrigation of farms and parklands; and for production of electric power. After use, water is returned to another part of the cycle: perhaps discharged downstream or allowed to soak into the ground. Used water normally is lower in quality, even after treatment, which often poses a problem for downstream users. The hydrologist studies the fundamental transport processes to be able to describe the quantity and quality of water as it moves through the cycle (evaporation, precipitation, streamflow, infiltration, ground water flow, and other components). The engineering hydrologist, or water resources engineer, is involved in the planning, analysis, design, construction and operation of projects for the control, utilization, and management of water resources. Water resources problems are also the concern of meteorologists, oceanographers, geologists, chemists, physicists, biologists, economists, political scientists, specialists in applied mathematics and computer science, and engineers in several fields.

What Hydrologists Do?

Hydrologists apply scientific knowledge and mathematical principles to solve water-related problems in society: problems of quantity, quality and availability. They may be concerned with finding water supplies for cities or irrigated farms, or controlling river flooding or soil erosion. Or, they may work in environmental protection: preventing or cleaning up pollution or locating sites for safe disposal of hazardous wastes. Persons trained in hydrology may have a wide variety of job titles. Scientists and engineers in hydrology may be involved in both field investigations and office work. In the field, they may collect basic data, oversee testing of water quality, direct field crews and work with equipment. Many jobs require travel, some abroad. A hydrologist may spend considerable time doing field work in remote and rugged terrain. In the office, hydrologists do many things such as interpreting hydrologic data and performing analyses for determining possible water supplies. Much of their work relies on computers for organizing, summarizing and analyzing masses of data, and for modeling studies such as the prediction of flooding and the consequences of reservoir releases or the effect of leaking underground oil storage tanks. The work of hydrologists is as varied as the uses of water and may range from planning multimillion dollar interstate water projects to advising homeowners about backyard drainage problems.


School Programs Park Rangers

Park Rangers Teach Children the Importance of Water in Agriculture

Lake Berryessa Field Office participated in the Yolo County Farm Connection Day at the Yolo County Fair Grounds in Woodland, California. The Yolo County Farm Bureau holds this event annually to introduce children, from kindergarten through third grade, to the importance of agriculture.

Lake Berryessa Park Rangers were on-site and manned a display to introduce participants to the Bureau of Reclamation and taught children how much water is needed to grow their favorite agricultural products. For example, it takes 4 gallons to produce on head of lettuce and 65 gallons of water to produce one eight-ounce glass of milk. To close, park rangers emphasized that there are plenty of things at home people can do to ensure we have enough water to meet the needs of everyone, including our farmers.

The Lake Berryessa booth had about 30 adults and 480 students stop by over the course of the event. This is the first time Lake Berryessa’s Park Rangers have participated in Yolo’s Farm Connection Day at the invitation of the Yolo Farm Bureau.

Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam

When Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s, the great dam was known for its engineering superlatives. It was the highest dam ever built, the costliest water project, home of the largest power plant of its time.

Today, as Hoover celebrates its 60th anniversary, we can see that the dam is not only an engineering wonder. It also is a work of art.

Few structures in America display the diversity of design and craftsmanship that you see at Hoover Dam. It is a showcase of seldom-seen skills of artists and artisans–beautifully presented terrazzo tiles, sculpture, metalwork, and even military emplacements.

The dam’s architectural design varies a great deal from its initial plans. Bureau of Reclamation engineers, more concerned with flood control than appearance, simply wanted to embellish the dam with eagles, cornices, and other ornamentation.

The more streamlined look of the completed project was influenced by two men who were not engineers: architect Gordon B. Kaufmann, known for his design of the Los Angeles Times Building, and artist Allen True, whose murals are prominent in the Colorado State Capitol in Denver.

Kaufmann was a native of London, England, who lived in Southern California. He had been enlisted to help design the Administration Building in Boulder City, the federal town being built to house dam workers. After he was asked to comment on the aesthetics of the dam’s proposed design, Kaufmann became totally involved in the project. Richard Guy Wilson, architecture professor at the University of Virginia and a student of the dam, notes that the architect apparently was retained to counterbalance the engineers’ focus on “functionality rather than aesthetics.”

Kaufmann simplified the dam’s design and replaced ornamentation with the flowing lines of Modernism and Art Deco. The four areas where his influence is most visible are the power plant, dam crest, intake towers, and spillways. He transformed the power plant with color and facades. He blended four protruding towers on the crest into the face of the structure. He smoothed the upper portions of the four intake towers and reworked the two spillways to accent Art Deco elements.

“There was never any desire or attempt to create an architectural effect or style,” he later explained, “but rather to take each problem and integrate it to the whole in order to secure a system of plain surfaces relieved by shadows here and there.” The architect later produced progressively simplified designs for downstream Parker Dam and for Shasta Dam in Northern California.

Allen True, the Denver artist, assisted Kaufmann with interior designs and color. True was responsible for one of the dam’s most distinctive motifs–the Southwestern Indian designs in the terrazzo floors. Using such sources as an Acoma bowl and Pima basket, True linked Native American geometric concepts with Art Deco design. Many of the Indian designs were based on centrifugal themes, which related to the turbines in the power plant.

True’s colors were truly striking. He used black, white, green and dull-red ochre chips in the terrazzo floors to contrast with the black-marble walls. True also specified the red color for the generator shells in the power plant, a sight that still commands visitors’ attention.

You can see the power plant and terrazzo work during a tour of the dam. Following an elevator descent of 530 feet, you emerge into seemingly endless galleries. There you find gleaming terrazzo floors imbedded with the Southwestern Indian patterns adapted by True from baskets, pottery, and sand paintings.

Two Italian immigrant brothers, Joseph and John Martina, installed the terrazzo floors in 1936-37 with the help of 30 countrymen. John served as contractor for the job and worked with Reclamation officials. Joe, barely able to speak English when they bid on the job, was in charge of laying the floors. The Martina brothers contracted to install the terrazzo for 48 cents per square foot, for a total of only $51,718. Costs today would exceed $20 per square foot.

To create the terrazzo, the workers imbedded marble chips in cement, separating them with brass or aluminum divider strips to make a tiled pattern. After the mosaic hardened, they used large finishing machines to polish the surfaces. The result was a lustrous terrazzo.

On top of the dam, two “Winged Figures of the Republic” dominate the Nevada approach, They are the work of sculptor Oskar J.W. Hansen, a Norwegian immigrant who was appointed a consulting sculptor by Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes following a national competition.

Hansen said the 30-foot bronzed statues represented “that eternal vigilance which is the price of liberty.” Perched on six-foot-tall cues of gleaming black diorite, Hansen’s figures flank a 142-foot flagpole. In front of this array he placed a terrazzo star map depicting the celestial alignment from that site on the evening of September 30, 1935, the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated what was then called Boulder Dam.

Hansen also created the nearby bronze plaque memorializing the 96 workers who died during construction of the dam. An inscription proclaims, “They died to make the desert bloom.”

You can see more of Hansen’s work on the two elevator towers. Each displays five bas-reliefs that tell a story. The Arizona tower has a tribute to Native American tribes and their Great Spirit of the ranges and the plains. The five Nevada panels portray the dam’s main purposes — flood control, navigation, irrigation, water storage, and power.

Away from the tour route, and off-limits to the public, are two unique forms of craftsmanship that appeared after the dam’s completion in 1935. The first is found in the power plant’s “gold room,” where solid-copper cabinetry surrounds heavy copper bars carrying electricity from generators to transformers. Fred Johnson, electrical engineer at Hoover Dam, says the name “gold room” probably derived from the bright finishes of the copper cabinets, but rumors persist that the metal has a high gold content.

The other curiosity stands above the dam. If you look on the Arizona (eastern) side of Lake Mead, you will see a cubical silhouette. This is a gun emplacement built during World War II. As a major source of electrical power for the defense industry, Hoover Dam was considered a primary military target. Of several bunkers that guarded the dam in wartime, this one is the last survivor.

The pillbox, constructed of steel and concrete and veneered with local rock, is 24 feet long and has six gun ports. It was built by a military police battalion soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, according to Lincoln Clark of Las Vegas. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Clark was a first lieutenant when stationed at the dam in 1942. He and his fellow soldiers guarded the dam and escorted civilian vehicles across it. One soldier was always inside in the bunker, Clark recalls, and a squad of riflemen was scattered in the rocks 24 hours a day.

Thus the soldiers demonstrated the “eternal vigilance” that Oskar Hansen sought to portray in his handsome winged figures, seen by all who cross the dam.

Hansen, an intensely creative sculptor, showed his sense of humor one day at the dam. While he was working on the sculptures, a woman asked him how he began such an endeavor. “Madam,” Hansen replied, “when you peel an orange, do you begin by sticking your thumb into its center?” He meant that a sculptor must take all parts of a work into consideration before “peeling” away the unused material.

Today we can admire the way Hansen and other artists and craftsmen peeled away Hoover Dam to create a structure of beauty as well as utility.

Project Wet

Project WET – Water Education for Teachers

Project WET is an interdisciplinary water education program that provides K-12 teachers and other educators with hands-on classroom activities through training workshops.

The activities incorporate important environmental lessons into all disciplines including the sciences, mathematics, fine arts, social studies, language arts, and music. They are perfect for use in formal and nonformal settings.

Mission Statement

Project WET is founded in the belief that informed people are more likely to participate in the decision making process and to make a difference through their actions. The Department of Environmental Protection invites educators, resource managers, community leaders, and concerned citizens to join Project WET in educating young people about one of the most precious resources on the planet – water.

Colorado River Watershed History

The Colorado River is one of the most important water systems in the United States. Draining watersheds from seven western states, it is divided into two major districts, the Upper Basin comprised of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, and the Lower Basin formed by Nevada, Arizona, and California. With its headwaters in Wyoming and Colorado and its mouth (until recently) flowing into the Gulf of California, this river serves as a focal point for both prehistoric and historic events in the West.

Colorado River
Colorado River

The Colorado courses through Utah in a southwesterly direction and has two major tributaries, the Green and San Juan rivers, with smaller, additional sources flowing in from east and west. During prehistoric times it constituted a permeable boundary between the Anasazi populations to the south and east, and the Fremont and western Anasazi populations to the northwest and west, respectively. The Anasazi farmed tributary canyons and alluvial bottom lands where soil was rich and water adequate. These early Indians also created a system of trails that crossed both the San Juan and Colorado rivers. Spanish and Anglo-Americans later used some of these paths in their exploration and settlement of the West.

Historic Native American groups living along the Colorado include the Paiute in southwestern Utah, the Ute in southeastern Utah, and the Navajo south and east of the confluence of the San Juan and the Colorado. This latter group has a rich body of lore concerning the river, which they say has a female spirit name “Life Without End.” She, and her male counterpart, the San Juan, form a protective boundary that skirts the reservation lands. In the past, Navajo ceremonies like the Blessingway provided protection for events and locations within this area, while beyond this line Enemyway and Evilway applied. Navajo raids across these rivers were a common occurrence during the 1850s and 1860s, and to a lesser extent in the 1870s.

The Spaniards provided the first documented information about the Colorado, giving the river various names, such as El Rio de Cosninas, de San Rafael, and de Tizon. Various Spanish parties visited the river, the most famous one in Utah being the Dominguez-Escalante expedition in 1776. As the two padres returned to Santa Fe, New Mexico, through southwestern Utah, they came upon an old Ute trail in an area that appeared otherwise impassable. Chiseling steps and smoothing a path for livestock, the missionaries forded the river at what was called the Crossing of the Fathers, which now rests under the waters of Lake Powell.

During the 1820s and 1830s, Euro-American mountain men ventured down and trapped parts of the Colorado. Famous personalities like Jedediah Smith, James Ohio Pattie, and Ewing Young searched for beaver along its banks, while another trapper, Denis Julien, left his inscription in Cataract Canyon.

Although these men explored sections of the river, it was not until 1869 and again in 1871-72, that the Colorado was fully mapped. John Wesley Powell’s two expeditions, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute and Congress respectively, charted the water’s course from Green River, Wyoming, through the Grand Canyon and beyond. His ten- and eleven-man crews collected information and sailed their wooden boats down one of the most dramatic and roughest inland waterways in the United States.

Many people in Utah came to cross or visit the river but, with the exception of Moab where the water was calmer and the flood plain wide, few came to stay. For instance, the Mormons built the Hole-in-the-Rock trail in 1880, but once across, they moved on to the quieter San Juan. Charles Hall, a year later, placed into service a thirty-foot ferry boat to handle the traffic on the route between Bluff and Escalante; insufficient business caused Hall’s Crossing to close three years later. Even Hite City (1883), named after Cass Hite, a prominent prospector, was a boom-and-bust mining town on the Colorado that lasted only seven years. After the placer gold was removed from the gravel bars located at sites like Dandy’s Crossing and Ticaboo, the miners left their claims in search of better paydirt. Few were truly successful. Men with gold in their dreams again ventured forth in the 1890s. For about ten years, individual miners and companies with dredges tried to force riches out of the San Juan and Colorado rivers, but achieved little wealth. They, like the others, left.

The 1930s and 1940s saw the introduction of a more profitable trade on the Colorado–river running and tourism. Norman Nevills, for example, headquartered at Mexican Hat and turned the red waters of the San Juan and Colorado into green cash as recreation became increasingly important. Even with the introduction of the Glen Canyon Dam in the 1950s and Lake Powell in the 1960s, there was still plenty of white water and red rock for adventurous souls to find the isolation and excitement they desired. And later, when its tributaries were heavily committed to irrigation and culinary use, the Colorado remained a playground for kayakers, rafters, and tourists. Today, the Utah portion of the Colorado River continues to offer not only its water as a resource, but also its beauty and adventure to those who come to its banks.