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Water subsidies from mountains to deserts: Their role in sustaining groundwater-fed oases in a sandy landscape

Jobbágy EG, MD Nosetto, PE Villagra, RB Jackson
Ecological Applications
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In arid regions throughout the world, shallow phreatic aquifers feed natural oases of much higher productivity than would be expected solely from local rainfall. In South America, the presence of well developed Prosopis flexuosa woodlands in the Monte desert region east of the Andes has puzzled scientists for decades. Today these woodlands provide crucial subsistence to local populations, including descendants of the indigenous Huarpes. We explore the vulnerability and importance of phreatic ground water for the productivity of the region, comparing the contributions of local rainfall to that of remote mountain recharge that is increasingly being diverted for irrigated agriculture before it reaches the desert. We combined deep soil coring, plant measurements, direct water table observations, and stable isotopic analyses (2H and 18O) of meteoric, surface and ground waters at three study sites across the region, comparing woodland stands, bare dunes, and surrounding shrublands. The isotopic composition of phreatic ground waters (δ2H; -137±5 ‰) closely matched the signature of water brought to the region by the Mendoza River (-137±6 ‰), suggesting that mountain river infiltration rather than in-situ rainfall deep drainage (-39±19 ‰) was the dominant mechanism of recharge. Similarly, chloride mass balances determined from deep soil profiles (> 6 m) suggested very low recharge rates. Vegetation in woodland ecosystems, where significant groundwater discharge losses, likely >100 mm yr-1 occurred, relied on regionally-derived groundwater located from 6.5 to 9.5 m underground. At these locations, daily water table fluctuations of ~10 mm, and stable isotopic measurements of plant water, indicated groundwater uptake rates of 200-300 mm yr-1. Regional scaling suggests that groundwater evapotranspiration reaches 18 to 42 mm yr-1 across the landscape, accounting for 7 to 17% of the Mendoza river flow regionally. Our study highlights the reliance of ecosystem productivity in natural oases on Andean snowmelt, which is increasingly being diverted to one of the largest irrigated regions of the continent. Understanding the ecohydrological coupling of mountain and desert ecosystems here and elsewhere should help managers balance production agriculture and conservation of unique woodland ecosystems and the rural communities that rely on them.

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