Integrating Ecology and Watershed Processes: Historical Rangeland Change as a Driver of Sediment Yield and Impacts on Reservoir Storage

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Matthew Berg1, Bradford Paul Wilcox2, Franco Marcantonio1 and Sorin C Popescu3, (1)Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, United States, (2)Texas A & M University, College Station, TX, United States, (3)Texas A&M University, Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, College Station, TX, United States
Rural lands increasingly are receiving attention for the ecosystem services they provide to growing populations. Among the most important of these is water yield and storage in rangelands. Yet rangelands are dynamic, with large land use/land cover changes over time. Uncertainty remains about the effects of these changes on rangeland function and how they affect potential benefits to populations that depend on them. We investigated rangelands in central Texas, USA to quantify changes in land cover and land use and resulting trends in sediment yield over time. Examining eight watersheds totaling 230 km2, we classified land cover using aerial photos from the late 1930s to 2012, focusing on woody plant cover. In addition, we digitized cultivated areas over time. Finally, we collected sediment cores from reservoirs at the base of each watershed and created a chronosequence of sedimentation trends using cesium-137 and lead-210 tracers. Cropland exhibited major reductions nearing 80% in all areas. Woody plant cover trends varied geographically, from steady decreases to decline followed by rebound to consistent increases in shrub extent. Cesium-137 profiles indicated sedimentation rates generally have decreased by more than 50% since 1963. Since then, rates in all areas have been quite stable. Cesium-137 and lead-210 rate estimates were similar (p = 0.69). At its peak, sedimentation in the smaller, semi-urban watershed occurred 1400% faster per unit area than in rural watersheds. Results indicate changing shrub cover is not a primary driver of sediment dynamics in these watersheds. Rather, it is likely that a combination of severe drought and land use history is responsible for periods of high sediment yield and reservoir storage loss