There is widespread concern that changes in climate and fire regime may lead to vegetation change across California, which in turn may influence watershed hydrology. Although plant cover is known to affect numerous hydrological processes, sensitivities to vegetation type and spatial arrangement of species within watersheds are not well understood. The primary objective of our research was to generate mechanistically-based projections of how potential type conversion from forested to shrub dominated systems may affect streamflow. During the 2014 growing season, we measured ecophysiological responses (plant water status and leaf gas exchange rates) of two dominant tree and shrub species to changes in seasonal water availability at two sites within the southern Sierra Nevada Critical Zone Observatory. Plant physiological observations were used to parameterize a process-based eco-hydrological model, RHESSys. This model was used to evaluate the impact of changes in seasonal water availability and vegetation type-conversion on streamflow. Based on our field observations, shrubs and trees had similar access to water through the early part of the growing season (April-early June); however, by late July, available water to shrubs was twice that of trees (shrubs, -0.55 ± 0.08 MPa; trees, -1.07 ± 0.08 MPa, p<0.05). Likewise, maximum transpiration (E) and carbon assimilation (A) rates per unit leaf area were twice as high for shrubs then trees in July (shrubs, A= 21 ± 2.3 μmol m-2 s-1, E=6.6 ± 1.8 mmol m-2 s-1; trees, A=8.2 ± 1.9 μmol m-2 s-1, E=2.4 ± 0.3 mmol m-2 s-1). Preliminary modeled changes in streamflow following simulated vegetation conversion were found to affect both the timing and amount of discharge. Controls on pre vs. post-conversion streamflow included changes in interception, rooting depth, energy balance, and plant response to changes in seasonal water availability. Our research demonstrates how linking strategic field data collection and mechanistic ecohydrologic models can be used as a robust tool for assessing the potential impact of vegetation change on the water balance of an ecosystem. This is an increasingly valuable approach to inform management decisions focused on adapting strategies based on projected changes in climate.
Baguskas S, Bart R, Molinari N, Tague C, Moritz M. (2014): Potential effects of tree-to-shrub type conversion on streamflow in California’s Sierra Nevada. American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2014, abstract #H31G-0690.
This Paper/Book acknowledges NSF CZO grant support.