Mapping Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems in California

[tweetmeme Jeanette Howard and Matt Merrifield of the Nature Conservancy (USA) have published an article titled „Mapping Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems in California.“  The abstract of this article:


Most groundwater conservation and management efforts focus on protecting groundwater for drinking water and for other human uses with little understanding or focus on the ecosystems that depend on groundwater. However, groundwater plays an integral role in sustaining certain types of aquatic, terrestrial and coastal ecosystems, and their associated landscapes. Our aim was to illuminate the connection between groundwater and surface ecosystems by identifying and mapping the distribution of groundwater dependent ecosystems (GDEs) in California.

Methodology/Principal Findings

To locate where groundwater flow sustains ecosystems we identified and mapped groundwater dependent ecosystems using a GIS. We developed an index of groundwater dependency by analyzing geospatial data for three ecosystem types that depend on groundwater: (1) springs and seeps; (2) wetlands and associated vegetation alliances; and (3) stream discharge from groundwater sources (baseflow index). Each variable was summarized at the scale of a small watershed (Hydrologic Unit Code-12; mean size = 9,570 ha; n = 4,621), and then stratified and summarized to 10 regions of relative homogeneity in terms of hydrologic, ecologic and climatic conditions. We found that groundwater dependent ecosystems are widely, although unevenly, distributed across California. Although different types of GDEs are clustered more densely in certain areas of the state, watersheds with multiple types of GDEs are found in both humid (e.g. coastal) and more arid regions. Springs are most densely concentrated in the North Coast and North Lahontan, whereas groundwater dependent wetlands and associated vegetation alliances are concentrated in the North and South Lahontan and Sacramento River hydrologic regions. The percentage of land area where stream discharge is most dependent on groundwater is found in the North Coast, Sacramento River and Tulare Lake regions. GDE clusters are located at the highest percentage in the North Coast (an area of the highest annual rainfall totals), North Lahontan (an arid, high desert climate with low annual rainfall), and Sacramento River hydrologic regions. That GDEs occur in such distinct climatic and hydrologic settings reveals the widespread distribution of these ecosystems.


Protection and management of groundwater-dependent ecosystems are hindered by lack of information on their diversity, abundance and location. By developing a methodology that uses existing datasets to locate GDEs, this assessment addresses that knowledge gap. We report here on the application of this method across California, but believe the method can be expanded to regions where spatial data exist.

Read the full paper here in PDF format.

Citation: Howard J, Merrifield M (2010) Mapping Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems in California. PLoS ONE 5(6): e11249. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011249

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