Vegetation on the floor of Owens Valley, California, is composed predominantly of phreatophytic desert communities that are adapted to small quantities of precipitation and alkaline soils. These plant communities are believed to be dependent on the continuing presence of a shallow water table. Maintaining existing plant communities is important to preserve the environmental quality of the valley. Proposals to pump additional quantities of ground water from the valley for export to the city of Los Angeles caused concern about the effect of pumping on the existing vegetation and how the plants would adapt to short- or long-term declines of the shallow water table.
To test the ability of selected major shrub species to adapt to water-table decline, four sites were selected, pump-equipped wells were installed, and water-table drawdown was monitored. Soil samples were collected with a hand auger and analyzed by using the filter-paper method to monitor changes in soil water content and soil matric potential at test sites. Plant reactions were determined by measurements of plant cover, shoot growth, and xylem pressure potential.
Results of 3 years of monitoring show that growth and cover repetition of the shrubs studied are affected greatly by the quantity of annual precipitation, especially at sites with coarse-textured soils. Plants were not affected by drying soil in the root zone until the maximum matric potential exceeded 4.3 pF (-1,950 kilopascal) at depths greater than 0.5 meter. Rabbit-brush was most sensitive to dry soil and was the only shrub species that died as the result of water stress from water-table drawdown. The change in cover repetition correlated positively with the magnitude of water-table drawdown at one site and negatively at another site. Measurements of xylem pressure potential taken before dawn correlated well with water content in the upper 1.5 meters of soil.
The magnitude of water-table drawdown achieved by the pump-equipped wells was less than expected at three of the four sites. Additional water-table drawdown for a longer period of time would be needed to separate the effects of water-table drawdown from the effects caused by differences in soil textures and natural fluctuations in the quantity of precipitation.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Soil water and vegetation responses to precipitation and changes in depth to ground water in Owens Valley, California
Water Supply Paper
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