Water and Energy Balance of a Riparian and Agricultural Ecosystem along the Lower Colorado River

Saleh Taghvaeian, Utah State University

This work made publicly available electronically on June 10, 2011.


Spatially-distributed water consumption was modeled over a segment of the Lower Colorado River, which contains irrigated agricultural and Tamarisk-dominated riparian ecosystems. For the irrigation scheme, distributed evapotranspiration data were analyzed in conjunction with point measurements of precipitation and surface flow in order to close daily and annual water balance. The annual closure error was less than 1% of the total water diversion to the area. In addition, it was found that the soil water storage component of the water balance cannot be neglected if the analysis is performed over time frames shorter than annual (e.g. growing season).
Water consumption was highly uniform within agricultural fields, and all the full-cover fields were transpiring close to their potential rates. Mapping several new and existing drainage performance indicators showed that neither soil salinization nor water-logging would be of concern in this irrigation scheme. However, the quality of high-volume return flow must be studied, especially since the degraded water quality of the western US rivers is believed to act in favor of the invasive riparian species in outcompeting native species. Over the Tamarisk forest, the remotely-sensed evapotranspiration estimates were higher than the results of an independent groundwater-based method during spring and winter months. This was chiefly due to the fixed satellite overpass time, which happened at low sun elevation angles in spring and winter and resulted in a significant presence of shadows in the satellite scene and consequently a lower surface temperature estimate, which resulted in a higher evapotranspiration estimate using the SEBAL model. A modification based on the same satellite imagery was proposed and found to be successful in correcting for this error. Both water use and crop coefficients of Tamarisk estimated by the two independent methods implemented in this study were significantly lower than the current approximations that are used by the US Bureau of Reclamation in managing the Lower Colorado River. Studying the poorlyunderstood stream-aquifer-phreatophyte relationship revealed that diurnal and seasonal groundwater fluctuations were strongly coupled with the changes in river stage at close distances to the river and with the Tamarisk water extraction at further distances from the river. The direction of the groundwater flow was always from the river toward the riparian forest. Thus the improved Tamarisk ET estimates along with a better understanding of the coupling between the river and the riparian aquifer will allow the Bureau of Reclamation to re-asses their reservoir release methodology and improve efficiency and water savings.