Ecohydrology of root zone water fluxes and soil development in complex semiarid rangelands

Hugo A. Gutiérrez-Jurado, Enrique R. Vivoni, J. Bruce J. Harrison, Huade Guan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


In semiarid complex terrain, the landscape creates spatial niches for different types of vegetation through the effects of aspect, slope and curvature on the water and energy balance at the soil surface. The ecohydrology of rangelands is defined by the interaction of soils, plants and climate occurring on a topographic surface. While these interactions have been studied for subtle terrain, little is known about the controls exerted by terrain position, in particular terrain aspect, on ecosystem processes. Furthermore, differential plant establishment can lead to measurable differences in rates of soil development, which in turn can affect soil hydraulic properties and the surface water balance. In this study, we outline the physical mechanisms affecting plant establishment, soil development and hydrologic fluxes in semiarid complex terrain. We illustrate the interactions between vegetation, root zone water fluxes and soil development using, as an example, a small drainage basin in the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR), New Mexico. In the study basin, opposing hillslopes are characterized by marked differences in ecosystem composition and soil profile properties, with the north-facing hillslope dominated by one seed juniper (Juniperus monosperma) and the south-facing slope consisting of creosote bush (Larrea tridentata). We assess the effect of terrain aspect on root zone hydrologic fluxes and soil development in the two ecosystems by using soil observations, hydraulic properties from pedotransfer functions (PTFs), and numerical modelling of vadose zone fluxes. Modelling results show marked differences in root zone fluxes in the north-facing juniper and south-facing creosote ecosystems. Differences in the amplitude and frequency of soil water content and pressure correspond to changes in soil profile and vegetation characteristics. For example, soil properties of the calcium carbonate (CaCO3) horizons and differential plant water uptake impact the simulated soil water pressure over an 8-year period in the opposing ecosystems. It is believed that these variations in water fluxes reinforce the development of CaCO3 horizons present in the soil profiles, leading to a feedback between vegetation establishment, soil water fluxes and geomorphic processes in the catchment. Our results also indicate that soil properties and water fluxes compensate for large differences in evaporative demand and lead to similar actual evapotranspiration (AET) in the opposing slopes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3289-3316
Number of pages28
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number15
StatePublished - Oct 15 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Biome transition
  • Calcic soils
  • Evapotranspiration
  • New Mexico
  • Pedogenesis
  • Plant-water interactions
  • Semiarid hydrology
  • Vadose zone modelling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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