Possible link between irrigation in the U.S. High Plains and increased summer streamflow in the Midwest



[1] We have previously presented evidence that higher rates of evapotranspiration (ET) associated with irrigation in the U.S. High Plains has likely caused an increased downwind precipitation (P). July P over the Midwest increased by 20%–30% from the preirrigation period (1900–1950) to the postirrigation (1950–2000) period. In this study, we test the hypothesis that the increased July P has had hydrologic consequences, possibly increasing groundwater storage and streamflow. Seasonal analyses of hydrologic variables over Illinois suggest that the water table and streamflow response lags P − ET by 1–2 months, indicating August and September as the months when the increased July P may be detected. We analyzed long-term observations of water table depth at 10 wells in Illinois and streamflow at 46 gauges in Illinois-Ohio basins. The Mann-Kendal test for trends suggests field significant increases in groundwater storage and streamflow in August–September over the period of irrigation expansion. Examination of soil moisture response to present-day above-normal July P suggests that the increased July P can reach the water table in normal to wet years. Mann-Kendall tests suggest that there has been no change in pan evaporation and atmospheric vapor pressure deficit. This implies that soil water availability is the driver of changes in ET, and the increased P may have possibly increased ET. Other studies in the literature give further evidence of increased ET due to increased P. By ruling out a reduction in ET, we suggest that the observed increase in groundwater storage and streamflow in the Midwest is linked to the increased July precipitation attributed to High Plains irrigation. We note that the increases in late summer streamflow are rather small when placed in the context of seasonal dynamics, but they are conceptually important in that they point to a different cause of change.