• ecohydrology;
  • heterogeneity;
  • salt marsh;
  • zonation

[1] Vegetation zonation and tidal hydrology are basic attributes of intertidal salt marshes, but specific links among vegetation zonation, plant water use, and spatiotemporally dynamic hydrology have eluded thorough characterization. We developed a quantitative model of an intensively studied salt marsh field site, integrating coupled 2-D surface water and 3-D groundwater flow and zonal plant water use. Comparison of model scenarios with and without heterogeneity in (1) evapotranspiration rates and rooting depths, according to mapped vegetation zonation, and (2) sediment hydraulic properties from inferred geological heterogeneity revealed the coupled importance of both sources of ecohydrological variability at the site. Complex spatial variations in root zone pressure heads, saturations, and vertical groundwater velocities emerged in the model but only when both sources of ecohydrological variability were represented together and with tidal dynamics. These regions of distinctive root zone hydraulic conditions, caused by the intersection of vegetation and sediment spatial patterns, were termed “ecohydrological zones” (EHZ). Five EHZ emerged from different combinations of sediment hydraulic properties and evapotranspiration rates, and two EHZ emerged from local topography. Simulated pressure heads and groundwater dynamics among the EHZ were validated with field data. The model and data showed that hydraulic differences between EHZ were masked shortly after a flooding tide but again became prominent during prolonged marsh exposure. We suggest that ecohydrological zones, which reflect the combined influences of topographic, sediment, and vegetation heterogeneity and do not emphasize one influence over the others, are the fundamental spatial habitat units comprising the salt marsh ecosystem.