The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the National Park Service and Inyo County, Calif., collected field data from 1997 through 2001 to accurately estimate the amount of annual ground-water discharge by evapotranspiration (ET) from the floor of Death Valley, California.
Multispectral satellite-imagery and National Wetlands Inventory data are used to delineate evaporative ground-water discharge areas on the Death Valley floor. These areas are divided into five general units where ground-water discharge from ET is considered to be significant. Based upon similarities in soil type, soil moisture, vegetation type, and vegetation density; the ET units are salt-encrusted playa (21,287 acres), bare-soil playa (75,922 acres), low-density vegetation (6,625 acres), moderate-density vegetation (5,019 acres), and high-density vegetation (1,522 acres). Annual ET was computed for ET units with micrometeorological data which were continuously measured at six instrumented sites. Total ET was determined at sites that were chosen for their soil- and vegetated-surface conditions, which include salt-encrusted playa (extensive salt encrustation) 0.17 feet per year, bare-soil playa (silt and salt encrustation) 0.21 feet per year, pickleweed (pickleweed plants, low-density vegetation) 0.60 feet per year, Eagle Borax (arrowweed plants and salt grass, moderate-density vegetation) 1.99 feet per year, Mesquite Flat (mesquite trees, high-density vegetation) 2.86 feet per year, and Mesquite Flat mixed grasses (mixed meadow grasses, high-density vegetation) 3.90 feet per year.
Precipitation, flooding, and ground-water discharge satisfy ET demand in Death Valley. Ground-water discharge is estimated by deducting local precipitation and flooding from cumulative ET estimates.
Discharge rates from ET units were not estimated directly because the range of vegetation units far exceeded the five specific vegetation units that were measured. The rate of annual ground-water discharge by ET for each ET unit was determined by fitting the annual ground-water ET for each site with the variability in vegetation density in each ET unit. The ET rate representing the midpoint of each ET unit was used as the representative value. The rate of annual ground-water ET for the playa sites did not require scaling in this manner. Annual ground-water discharge by ET was determined for all five ET units: salt-encrusted playa (0.13 foot), bare-soil playa (0.15 foot), low-density vegetation (1.0 foot), moderate-density vegetation (2.0 feet), and high-density vegetation (3.0 feet), and an area of vegetation or bare soil not contributing to ground-water discharge unclassified (0.0 foot).
The total ground-water discharge from ET for the Death Valley floor is about 35,000 acre-feet and was computed by summing the products of the area of each ET unit multiplied by a corresponding ET rate for each unit.