Exploring the ecohydrological impacts of woody plant encroachment in paired watersheds of the Sonoran Desert, Arizona
Woody plant encroachment is a worldwide phenomenon linked to water availability in semiarid systems. Nevertheless, the implications of woody plant encroachment on the hydrologic cycle are poorly understood, especially at the catchment scale. This study takes place in a pair of small semiarid rangeland undergoing the encroachment of Prosopis velutina Woot., or velvet mesquite tree. The similarly-sized basins are in close proximity, leading to equivalent meteorological and soil conditions. One basin was treated for mesquite in 1974, while the other represents the encroachment process. A sensor network was installed to measure ecohydrological states and fluxes, including precipitation, runoff, soil moisture and evapotranspiration. Observations from June 1, 2011 through September 30, 2012 are presented to describe the seasonality and spatial variability of ecohydrological conditions during the North American Monsoon (NAM). Runoff observations are linked to historical changes in runoff production in each watershed. Observations indicate that the mesquite-treated basin generates more runoff pulses and greater runoff volume for small rainfall events, while the mesquite-encroached basin generates more runoff volume for large rainfall events. A distributed hydrologic model is applied to both basins to investigate the runoff threshold processes experienced during the NAM. Vegetation in the two basins is classified into grass, mesquite, or bare soil using high-resolution imagery. Model predictions are used to investigate the vegetation controls on soil moisture, evapotranspiration, and runoff generation. The distributed model shows that grass and mesquite sites retain the highest levels of soil moisture. The model also captures the runoff generation differences between the two watersheds that have been observed over the past decade. Generally, grass sites in the mesquite-treated basin have less plant interception and evapotranspiration, leading to higher soil moisture that supports greater runoff for small rainfall events. For large rainfall events, the mesquite-encroached basin produces greater runoff due to its higher fraction of bare soil. The results of this study show that a distributed hydrologic model can be used to explain runoff threshold processes linked to woody plant encroachment at the catchment-scale and provides useful interpretations for rangeland management in semiarid areas.