The Platte River is a vital natural resource for the people, plants, and animals of Nebraska. A recent study quantified water use by riparian woodlands along central reaches of the Platte River, Nebraska, finding that water use was mainly regulated below maximum predicted levels. A comparative study was launched through a cooperative partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey, the Central Platte Natural Resources District, the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, and the Nebraska Environmental Trust to compare water use of a riparian woodland with that of a grazed riparian grassland along the central Platte River. This report describes the results of the 3-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey to measure the evapotranspiration (ET) rates in the two riparian vegetation communities. Evapotranspiration was measured during 2008–09 and 2011 using the eddy-covariance method at a riparian woodland near Odessa, hereinafter referred to as the “woodland site,” and a riparian grassland pasture near Elm Creek, hereinafter referred to as the “grassland site.” Overall, annual ET totals at the grassland site were 90 percent of the annual ET measured at the woodland site, with averages of 653 millimeters (mm) and 726 mm, respectively. Evapotranspiration rates were similar at the grassland site and the woodland site during the spring and fall seasons, but at the woodland site ET rates were higher than those of the grassland site during the peak-growth summer months of June through August. These seasonal differences and the slightly lower ET rates at the grassland site were likely the result of differing plant communities, disturbance effects related to grazing and flooding, and climatic differences between the sites. The annual water balance was calculated for each site and indicated that the predominant factors in the water balance at both sites were ET and precipitation. Annual precipitation for the study period ranged from near to above the normal precipitation of 640 mm. Substantial precipitation fell in May and October 2008 that caused flooding along the Platte River in May of this especially wet year. There was a deficit in precipitation compared to ET at both sites in 2009 and 2011, leading to a net groundwater use of greater than 140 mm per year at the woodland site and greater than 55 mm per year at the grassland site. This indicates that the net annual groundwater use or recharge depends predominately upon the relation between ET and precipitation in these riparian areas with shallow soil layers above the groundwater table. Prior research at the woodland site provided four additional annual water balances dating back to 2002 for comparison with the study period at the woodland site. Perhaps most striking in this comparison was the 25-percent increase in annual ET for 2008–09 and 2011 despite precipitation totals and potential ET rates that were within the range of those measured in 2002–05. As a result, the water balance indicates that groundwater was discharged 2 of the 3 years of the study. This likely was caused by higher groundwater levels and a healthier plant community in 2008–09 and 2011 relative to the drought-affected years of 2002–05. As a result of these changes, the crop coefficients developed for riparian woodlands during the prior research underestimated 2008–09 and 2011 annual ET rates by an average of 35 percent. Though new crop coefficients were developed by this study, the importance of soil-moisture stress and plant community successional dynamics need to be considered when applying these coefficients at other riparian sites or into the future. Nonetheless, their development and the data on which they are based may provide improved understanding of water consumption by riparian grasslands and riparian woodlands along the central Platte River.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Comparison of water consumption in two riparian vegetation communities along the central Platte River, Nebraska, 2008–09 and 2011