• Runoff and erosion in intercanopy zones of pinyon-juniper woodlands

      Wilcox, B. P. (Society for Range Management, 1994-07-01)
      In semiarid pinyon-juniper environments, the principal mechanisms of redistribution of water, sediments, nutrients, and contaminants are runoff and erosion. To study the phenomena underlying these mechanisms, we established six 30-m2 plots, in intercanopy zones, for monitoring over a 2-yr period (1991-1993). Two of the plots were severely disturbed; 4 were undisturbed. We measured the most runoff from these plots during mid summer (generated by intense thunderstorms) and late winter (from snowmelt and/or rain-on-snow). Runoff accounted for 10 to 28% of the water budget over the 2-yr period—a higher proportion than that observed in most other pinyon-juniper woodlands, which is probably explained by the smaller scale as well as the higher elevation of our study area. Runoff accounted for 16% of the summer water budget the first year, with above-average precipitation (and thereby higher soil moisture content) and 3% the second year, when precipitation was about average. Winter runoff was substantial both years as measured on the small scale of our study (no winter runoff was observed in the nearby stream channel). Interestingly, even though precipitation was lower the first winter, runoff was higher. This may be because snowmelt set in about 20 days earlier that year—while the soils were still thoroughly frozen, inhibiting infiltration. Differences between disturbed and undisturbed plots were most evident in the summer: both runoff and erosion were substantially higher from the disturbed plots. On the basis of our observations during this study, we suggest that the following hypotheses proposed about runoff and erosion in other semiarid landscapes are also true of pinyon-juniper woodlands: (1) Runoff amounts vary with scale: runoff decreases as the size of the contributing ares increases and provides wore opportunities for infiltration. (2) The infiltration capacity of soils is dynamic; it is closely tied to soil moisture content and/or sod frost conditions and is a major determinant of runoff amounts. (3) Soil erodibility follows an annual cycle; it is highest at the end of the freeze-thaw period of late winter and lowest at the end of the summer rainy season, when soils have been compacted by repeated rainfall.