Riparian ecohydrology: Regulation of water flux from the ground to the atmosphere in the Middle Rio Grande, New Mexico

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Journal Article
Hydrological Processes, 2006, 20 (15), pp. 3207 - 3225
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During the previous decade, the south-western United States has faced declining water resources and escalating forest fires due to long-term regional drought. Competing demands for water resources require a careful accounting of the basin water budget. Water lost to the atmosphere through riparian evapotranspiration (ET) is believed to rank in the top third of water budget depletions. To better manage depletions in a large river system, patterns of riparian ET must be better understood. This paper provides a general overview of the ecological, hydrological, and atmospheric issues surrounding riparian ET in the Middle Rio Grande (MRG) of New Mexico. Long-term measurements of ET, water table depth, and micro-meteorological conditions have been made at sites dominated by native cottonwood (Populus deltoides) forests and non-native saltcedar (Tamarix chinensis) thickets along the MRG. Over periods longer than one week, groundwater and leaf area index (LAI) dynamics relate well with ET rates. Evapotranspiration from P. deltoides forests was unaffected by annual drought conditions in much of the MRG where the water table is maintained within 3 m of the surface. Evapotranspiration from a dense Tamarix chinensis thicket did not decline with increasing groundwater depth; instead, ET increased by 50%, from 6 mm/day to 9 mm/day, as the water table receded at nearly 7 cm/ day. Leaf area index of the T. chinensis thicket, likewise, increased during groundwater decline. Leaf area index can be manipulated as well following removal of non-native species. When T. chinensis and non-native Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) were removed from a P. deltoides understory, water salvaged through reduced ET was 26 cm/yr in relation to ET measured at reference sites. To investigate correlates to short-term variations in ET, stepwise multiple linear regression was used to evaluate atmospheric conditions under which ET is elevated or depressed. At the P. deltoides-dominated sites, ET anomalies were positively correlated to net radiation (Rn.) and negatively correlated to sensible heat flux (H), cross-corridor wind speed (v), and along-corridor wind speed (u) (r2 = 0.54). At the T. chinensis-dominated sites, ET anomalies were positively correlated with Rn, u, the friction coefficient (u*), and vapour pressure deficit (VPD) and were negatively correlated to surface humidity scale (q*), daily high and low temperature, H, and precipitation (r2 = 0.66). Both Tamarix and Populus can transpire prodigious quantities of water when conditions are favourable. In the MRG, T. chinensis is preferentially found where summer flooding and cold air drainage occurs, and P. deltoides is preferentially located in areas with shallow groundwater within 2 m of the surface. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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