A groundwater recharge perspective on locating tree plantations within low-rainfall catchments to limit water resource losses
Abstract. Despite the many studies that consider the impacts of plantation forestry on groundwater recharge, and others that explore the spatial heterogeneity of recharge in low-rainfall regions, there is little marriage of the two subjects in forestry management guidelines and legislation. Here we carry out an in-depth analysis of the impact of reforestation on groundwater recharge in a low-rainfall (< 700 mm annually), high-evapotranspiration paired catchment characterized by ephemeral streams. Water table fluctuation (WTF) estimates of modern recharge indicate that little groundwater recharge occurs along the topographic highs of the catchments (average 18 mm yr−1); instead the steeper slopes in these areas direct runoff downslope to the lowland areas, where most recharge occurs (average 78 mm yr−1). Recharge estimates using the chloride mass balance (CMB) method were corrected by replacing the rainfall input Cl− value with that for streamflow, because most recharge occurs from infiltration of runoff through the streambed and adjacent low gradient slopes. The calculated CMB recharge values (average 10 mm yr−1) are lower than the WTF recharge values (average 47 mm yr−1), because they are representative of groundwater that was mostly recharged prior to European land clearance (> BP 200 years). The tree plantation has caused a progressive drawdown in groundwater levels due to tree water use; the decline is less in the upland areas.
The results of this study show that spatial variations in recharge are important considerations for locating tree plantations. To conserve water resources for downstream users in low-rainfall, high-evapotranspiration regions, tree planting should be avoided in the dominant zone of recharge, i.e. the topographically low areas and along the drainage lines, and should be concentrated on the upper slopes, although this may negatively impact the economic viability of the plantation.