Decline in alkali meadow vegetation cover in California: the effects of groundwater extraction and drought


Present address and correspondence: Andrew J. Elmore, Environmental Studies Program, Dartmouth College, 6182 Steele Hall, Hanover, NH 03755, USA (fax +603 6461682; e-mail


  • 1Throughout arid regions of the world, groundwater is extracted for human population centres. In the Great Basin and Range region of the USA, we lack basic information regarding some plant communities detailing the extent to which vegetation is threatened by groundwater extraction. This is particularly true for alkali meadow vegetation, which is restricted to zones of shallow groundwater yet is not a riparian plant community with obligate wetland properties.
  • 2To increase our understanding of the relative importance of groundwater and precipitation in maintaining alkali meadow vegetation cover, we used a 16-year record of plant cover derived from satellite data of Owens Valley, California, USA, in conjunction with concurrent depth-to-water and precipitation measurements, to analyse vegetation response to anthropogenic and climatic changes in water availability.
  • 3Groundwater decline varied from 0·5 to 5·0 m throughout the study area, with the largest changes occurring at sites closest to pumping wells. The entire region experienced a 6-year drought (1987–92), during which annual precipitation remained below the 50-year median.
  • 4Meadow plant cover over the 16-year study period was correlated with groundwater depth, but plant cover was generally unresponsive to annual precipitation variability. Sensitivity to groundwater decline was greatest for plots with a higher cover of herbaceous perennials.
  • 5The results showed that this plant community is groundwater dependent, and that this characteristic buffers the system from the effects of drought. However, at sites with extensive groundwater decline, the remaining plant cover became weakly correlated with precipitation only after groundwater declined below a threshold depth located at 2·5 m, representing the average plant rooting depth.
  • 6Synthesis and applications. Sustainable water development that seeks to pump groundwater without adversely affecting vegetation cover and plant assemblages must recognize the maximum rooting depth of groundwater-dependent plant species. When groundwater is within the root zone, management decisions can be made to either increase or decrease vegetation cover through modification of groundwater depth. When groundwater is below the root zone, vegetation cover is low and susceptible to changes in precipitation. Quantitative satellite measurements of vegetation cover might aid the monitoring and sustainable management of water resources.