Articles | Volume 21, issue 12
Research article
20 Dec 2017
Research article |  | 20 Dec 2017

Spatiotemporal response of the water cycle to land use conversions in a typical hilly–gully basin on the Loess Plateau, China

Linjing Qiu, Yiping Wu, Lijing Wang, Xiaohui Lei, Weihong Liao, Ying Hui, and Xianyong Meng

Abstract. The hydrological effects of the Grain for Green project (GFGP) on the Loess Plateau have been extensively debated due to the complexity of the water system and its multiple driving factors. The aim of this study was to investigate the response of the hydrological cycle to the GFGP measures based in a case study of the Yanhe Basin, a typical hilly–gully area on the Loess Plateau of China. First, we analyzed the land use and land cover (LULC) changes from 1990 to 2010. Then, we evaluated the effects of LULC changes and sloping land conversion on the main hydrological components in the basin using the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT). The results indicated that cropland exhibited a decreasing trend, declining from 40.2 % of the basin area in 1990 to 17.6 % in 2010, and that the woodland and grassland areas correspondingly increased. With the land use changes from 1990 to 2010, the water yield showed a decreasing trend which was mainly due to decrease in surface runoff. In contrast, evapotranspiration (ET) showed an increasing trend over the same period, resulting in a persistent decrease in soil water. The conversion of sloping cropland to grassland or woodland exerted negative effects on water yield and soil water. Compared with the land use condition in 2010, the negative effects were most evident where cropland with a slope  ≥  15° was converted to woodland, with decreases in surface runoff and soil water of 17.1 and 6.4 %, respectively. These results suggest that the expansive reforestation on sloping land in the loess hilly–gully region decreased water yield and increased ET, resulting in reduced soil water. The results of this study can be used to support sustainable land use planning and water resource management on the Loess Plateau in China.

Short summary
What are the effects of the Grain for Green project on the water balance in the Loess Plateau of China? Our modeling study indicated that surface runoff and water yield exhibited a decreasing trend with the expansion of woodland on the sloping land because of overland flow retention and intensification of ET, while these effects were at the expense of soil water reduction in the region. Thus, land use planning should consider all water balance components to promote watershed sustainability.