Like other great desert rivers, the Colorado River in the United States and Mexico is highly regulated to provide water for human use. No water is officially allotted to support the natural ecosystems in the delta of the river in Mexico. However, precipitation is inherently variable in this watershed, and from 1981-2004, 15% of the mean annual flow of the Lower Colorado River has entered the riparian corridor below the last diversion point for water in Mexico. These flows include flood releases from US dams and much smaller administrative spills released back to the river from irrigators in the US and Mexico. These flows have germinated new cohorts of native cottonwood and willow trees and have established an active aquatic ecosystem in the riparian corridor in Mexico. We used ground and remote-sensing methods to determine the composition and fractional cover of the vegetation in the riparian corridor, its annual water consumption, and the sources of water that support the ecosystem. The study covered the period 2000-2004, a flood year followed by 4 dry years. The riparian corridor occupies 30,000 ha between flood control levees in Mexico. Annual evapotranspiration (ET), estimated by Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MODIS) satellite imagery calibrated against moisture flux tower data, was about 1.1 m yr-1 and was fairly constant throughout the study period despite a paucity of surface flows 2001-2004. Total ET averaged 3.4??108 m3 yr-1, about 15% of Colorado River water entering Mexico from the US Surface flows could have played only a small part in supporting these high ET losses. We conclude that the riparian ET is supported mainly by the shallow regional aquifer, derived from agricultural return flows, that approaches the surface in the riparian zone. Nevertheless, surface flows are important in germinating cohorts of native trees, in washing salts from the soil and aquifer, and in providing aquatic habitat, thereby enriching the habitat value of the riparian corridor for birds and other wildlife. Conservation and water management strategies to enhance the delta habitats are discussed in light of the findings. ?? 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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Riparian vegetation dynamics and evapotranspiration in the riparian corridor in the delta of the Colorado River, Mexico