Long-term trends in streamflow from semiarid rangelands: uncovering drivers of change


Bradford P. Wilcox, tel. +1 979 458 1899, fax +1 979 845 6430, e-mail: bwilcox@tamu.edu


In the last 100 years or so, desertification, degradation, and woody plant encroachment have altered huge tracts of semiarid rangelands. It is expected that the changes thus brought about significantly affect water balance in these regions; and in fact, at the headwater-catchment and smaller scales, such effects are reasonably well documented. For larger scales, however, there is surprisingly little documentation of hydrological change. In this paper, we evaluate the extent to which streamflow from large rangeland watersheds in central Texas has changed concurrent with the dramatic shifts in vegetation cover (transition from pristine prairie to degraded grassland to woodland/savanna) that have taken place during the last century. Our study focused on the three watersheds that supply the major tributaries of the Concho River – those of the North Concho (3279 km2), the Middle Concho (5398 km2), and the South Concho (1070 km2). Using data from the period of record (1926–2005), we found that annual streamflow for the North Concho decreased by about 70% between 1960 and 2005. Not only did we find no downtrend in precipitation that might explain this reduced flow, we found no corresponding change in annual streamflow for the other two watersheds (which have more karst parent material). When we analyzed trends in baseflow (contributions from groundwater) and stormflow (runoff events linked to specific precipitation events), however, we found that in spite of large increases in woody plants, baseflow for all the watersheds has remained essentially consistent or has increased slightly since 1960. At the same time, stormflows were of smaller magnitude. Animal numbers have declined precipitously in the latter half of the last century. We suggest that these lower stormflows result from generally higher soil infiltrability due to generally improving range condition. There is no indication that the decline in streamflow is related to diminished groundwater flows caused by extraction of subsurface water by woody plants.