Evapotranspiration is the ultimate path of outflow of nearly all water from the Lower Walker River basin. Walker Lake is the terminus of the topographically closed Walker River basin, and the lake level has been declining at an average rate of about 1.6 feet per year (ft/yr) since 1917. As a result of the declining lake level, dissolved-solids concentrations are increasingly threatening the fishery and ecosystem health of the lake. Uncertainties in the water budget components of the Lower Walker River basin led the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation, to undertake an investigation to refine estimates of the water budget. Evapotranspiration from the Lower Walker River basin represents a major component of this water budget.
The specific objectives of this report are to provide estimates of total and net evapotranspiration for water years 2005-07 for areas in the Lower Walker River basin in which annual evapotranspiration exceeds annual precipitation, and to summarize these results for areas of similar vegetation and soil characteristics, hydrographic subareas, and Walker Lake and Weber Reservoir. The three hydrographic subareas include the area along Walker River north of Walker Lake, the area of and adjacent to Walker Lake, and the area south of Walker Lake.
Areas of annual evapotranspiration exceeding annual precipitation were identified and mapped in the field and were further delineated using remote-sensing analysis. These areas were classified into 10 evapotranspiration units. A network of 11 evapotranspiration stations was operated in natural and agricultural vegetation and on Walker Lake. Measured evapotranspiration rates ranged from 0.5 ft/yr at a sparsely vegetated desert shrub site to 5.0 ft/yr from Walker Lake. The greatest evapotranspiration rate on land was 4.1 ft/yr at an irrigated alfalfa field, and the greatest rate for natural vegetation was 3.9 ft/yr in a riparian community along Walker River. At an evapotranspiration station in a saltcedar grove, measurements indicated a possible decrease in evapotranspiration of about 50 percent due to defoliation of the saltcedar by the saltcedar leaf beetle.
Total evapotranspiration from the evapotranspiration units identified in the Lower Walker River basin was about 231,000 acre-feet per year (acre-ft/yr). Of this amount, about 45,000 acre-ft/yr originated from direct precipitation, resulting in net evapotranspiration of about 186,000 acre-ft/yr. More than 80 percent of net evapotranspiration in the Lower Walker River basin was through evaporation from Walker Lake. Total evaporation from Walker Lake was about 161,000 acre-ft/yr and net evaporation was about 149,000 acre-ft/yr. Some previous estimates of evaporation from Walker Lake based on water-budget analysis actually represent total evaporation minus ground-water inflow to the lake. Historical evaporation rates determined on the basis of water budget analysis were less than the evaporation rate measured directly during this study. The difference could represent ground-water inflow to Walker Lake of 16,000 to 26,000 acre-ft/yr or could indicate that ground-water inflow to Walker Lake is decreasing over time as the lake perimeter recedes.