From AMS Glossary
(Or precipitable water vapor.) The total atmospheric water vapor contained in a vertical column of unit cross-sectional area extending between any two specified levels, commonly expressed in terms of the height to which that water substance would stand if completely condensed and collected in a vessel of the same unit cross section.
The total precipitable water is that contained in a column of unit cross section extending all of the way from the earth's surface to the "top" of the atmosphere. Mathematically, if x(p) is the mixing ratio at the pressure level, p, then the precipitable water vapor, W, contained in a layer bounded by pressures p1 and p2 is given by acceleration of gravity. In actual rainstorms, particularly thunderstorms, amounts of rain very often exceed the total precipitable water vapor of the overlying atmosphere. This results from the action of convergence that brings into the rainstorm the water vapor from a surrounding area that is often quite large. Nevertheless, there is general correlation between precipitation amounts in given storms and the precipitable water vapor of the air masses involved in those storms.
term edited 13Jan15