Tree-ring footprint of joint hydrologic drought in Sacramento and Upper Colorado river basins, western USA

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72 Scopus citations


Growing and changing demands on water supply, along with natural climate variability and possible anthropogenically induced climate change, make water resource management and planning increasingly challenging, particularly in arid regions. Instrumental climate and gaged streamflow records provide just a snapshop of recent natural hydrologic variability. In this paper, we use tree-ring-based annual streamflow reconstructions for the Sacramento River in California and the Blue River in western Colorado to analyze the temporal and spatial variability of widespread drought simultaneously affecting both basins over the past five centuries. Stability of joint-drought episodes and the covariation of reconstructed flows in the two basins are analyzed with sliding correlations, spectral analysis and a hypergeometric test. Year-to-year spatial patterns of moisture anomalies in a singular joint-drought episode in the late-1500s are mapped with a network of tree-ring data. Climatological aspects of joint droughts of the 20th century are investigated with 500-mb geopotential height data and climatic indices. Although flow in the two rivers is only very weakly correlated over the full 538-yr reconstruction period, more years of joint drought occur than would be expected by chance alone. Covariation in reconstructed flows is stronger in the late 1500s and mid-1700s than at any time since 1800. The late 1500s period of drought is not characterized as a decades-long unbroken drought, but as a series of drought impulses broken by wet years, with widespread moisture deficits in joint dry years. Periods of high inter-basin correlation in reconstructed flow are characterized by coherency at frequencies within the ENSO band. However, joint droughts in instrumental gage records do not display any consistent relationship with ENSO or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and so it is difficult to infer either as a causal mechanism for joint droughts in the past.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)196-213
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Jul 12 2005


  • Drought
  • ENSO
  • Paleoclimatology
  • Runoff
  • Tree rings
  • Western US

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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