Groundwater uptake by woody vegetation in a semiarid oak savanna



[1] Groundwater can serve as an important resource for woody vegetation in semiarid landscapes, particularly when soil water is functionally depleted and unavailable to plants. This study examines the uptake of groundwater by deciduous blue oak trees (Quercus douglasii) in a California oak savanna. Here we present a suite of direct and indirect methods that demonstrate its occurrence and quantify its rates. The study site is underlain by a thin soil layer and fractured metavolcanic bedrock. Typical depth to groundwater is approximately 8 m. A variety of water storage and flux measurements were collected from 2005 to 2008, including groundwater levels, soil moisture contents, sap flows, and latent heat fluxes. During the dry season, groundwater uptake rates ranged from 4 to 25 mm month−1 and approximately 80% of total ET during June, July, and August came from groundwater. Leaf and soil water potentials supported these results, indicating that groundwater uptake was thermodynamically favorable over soil water uptake for key portions of the growing season. These findings strongly suggest that blue oaks should be considered obligate phreatophytes and that groundwater reserves provide a buffer to rapid changes in their hydroclimate, if these assets are not otherwise depleted by prolonged drought or human consumption. While groundwater uptake may provide for short-term protection, it should be viewed not as a mechanism for continued plant growth. It allows the woody vegetation to subsist during the summer but not to flourish.