, Volume 33, Issue 5, pp 799–810 | Cite as

The Creation and Maintenance of Wetland Ecosystems from Irrigation Canal and Reservoir Seepage in a Semi-Arid Landscape

  • Jeremy P. Sueltenfuss
  • David J. Cooper
  • Richard L. Knight
  • Reagan M. Waskom


Irrigation has increased agricultural productivity in the arid American West, and has greatly altered the natural landscape. This study sought to identify the hydrologic processes linking irrigation canals and reservoirs to wetlands. We mapped wetlands within an irrigation company service area in northern Colorado, measured groundwater levels, and used stable oxygen isotopes to identify groundwater sources. We related vegetation composition in study wetlands to environmental variables to identify the types of wetlands supported by leakage from irrigation conveyance and storage structures. Ninety-two percent of wetlands were visually connected to the irrigation infrastructure. Wetland water tables varied with adjacent canal flow, and isotopic data indicated that wetlands within the study area were recharged solely by canal leakage. Wetland vegetation composition was related to both soil salinity and groundwater depth. Salt flats formed in areas with high salinity, marsh communities in areas with low salinity and higher standing water, and meadow communities in areas with low salinity and water tables near the ground surface. Though land conversion and water diversions have led to dramatic reductions in historic wetland area in some places, it is clear from our study that current agricultural landscapes create wetlands that rely on irrigation water.


Irrigation Canal seepage Wetlands 


  1. Anteau MJ (2012) Do interactions of land use and climate affect productivity of waterbirds and Prairie-Pothole wetlands? Wetlands 32:1–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Brinson MM, Malvarez AI (2002) Temperate freshwater wetlands: types, status, and threats. Environmental Conservation 29:115–133CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Clark ID, Fritz P (1997) Environmental isotopes in hydrogeology. Lewis Publishers, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Colorado Division of Water Resources (2011) Colorado Decision Support System. Data available at http://cdss.state.co.us. Accessed May 2011
  5. Cooper DJ, Chimner R, Merritt D (2012) Western Mountain Wetlands, Chapter 22. In: Batzer DP, Baldwin AH (eds) Wetland Habitats of North America. Ecology and Conservation Concerns. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp 313–328Google Scholar
  6. Crifasi RR (2005) Reflections in a stock pond: are anthropogenically derived freshwater ecosystems natural, artificial, or something else? Environmental Management 36:625–639PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. de Fraiture C, Molden D, Wichelns D (2010) Investing in water for food, ecosystems, and livelihoods: an overview of the comprehensive assessment of water management in agriculture. Agricultural Water Management 97:495–501CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. de Voogt K, Kite G, Droogers P, Murray-Rust H (2000) Modelling water allocation between a wetland and irrigated agriculture in the Gediz Basin, Turkey. Water Resources Development 16:639–650CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. DiNatale K, Doherty T, Waskom R, Brown R (2008) Meeting Colorado’s future water supply needs: Opportunities and challenges associated with potential agricultural water conservation measures. Colorado Water Institute, Colorado State University. http://www.cwi.colostate.edu/watersharing/files/CAWA_Ag_Water_Conservation.pdf. Accessed January 2008
  10. Dunne T, Leopold LB (1978) Water in environmental planning. W.H. Freeman and Company, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  11. Ekstein JD, Hygnstrom SE (1996) Fate of wetlands associated with the Central Nebraska Irrigation Canal System. Great Plains Research 6:41–60Google Scholar
  12. Erwin RM (2000) Integrated management of waterbirds: beyond the conventional. Waterbirds 25:5–12Google Scholar
  13. ESRI (2011) ArcGIS Desktop: Release 10. Environmental Systems Research Institute, RedlandsGoogle Scholar
  14. Fennessy S, Craft C (2011) Agricultural conservation practices increase wetland ecosystem services in the Glaciated Interior Plains. Ecological Applications 21:S49–S64CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fernald AG, Guldan SJ (2006) Surface water-groundwater interactions between irrigation ditches, alluvial aquifers, and streams. Reviews in Fisheries Science 14:79–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fernald AG, Cevik SY, Ochoa CG, Tidwell VC, King JP, Guldan SJ (2010) River hydrograph retransmission functions of irrigated valley surface water-groundwater interactions. Journal of Irrigation and Drainage Engineering 136:823–835CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Francis BA, Francis LK, Cardenas MB (2010) Water table dynamics and groundwater-surface water interaction during filling and draining of a large fluvial island due to dam-induced river stage fluctuations. Water Resources Research 46, W07513CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gollehon N, Quinby W (2000) Irrigation in the American west: area, water and economic activity. Water Resources Development 16:187–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Green GN (1992) The Digital Geologic Map of Colorado in ARC/INFO Format: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 92–0507, 9 p. http://geo-nsdi.er.usgs.gov/metadata/open-file/92-507/
  20. Harvey FE, Sibray SS (2001) Delineating groundwater recharge from leaking irrigation canals using water chemistry and isotopes. Groundwater 39:408–421CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kath J, le Brocque A, Miller C (2010) Wetland hydrology in an agricultural landscape: implications for biodiversity. In: BALWOIS 2010: Water Observation and Information System for Decision Support , 25-29 May 2010, Ohrid, MacedoniaGoogle Scholar
  22. Kendy E (2006) Impacts of changing land use and irrigation practices on western wetlands. National Wetlands Newsletter 28:27–32Google Scholar
  23. Kendy E, Bredehoeft JD (2006) Transient effects of groundwater pumping and surface-water-irrigation returns on stream flow. Water Resources Research 42, W08415CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kendy E, Zhang Y, Liu C, Wang J, Steenhuis T (2004) Groundwater recharge from irrigated cropland in the North China Plain: case study of Luancheng County, Hebei Province, 1949–2000. Hydrological Processes 18:2289–2302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Krause S, Jacobs J, Bronstert A (2007) Modeling the impacts of land-use and drainage density on the water balance of a lowland-floodplain landscape in northeast Germany. Ecological Modelling 200:475–492CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kray JA, Cooper DJ, Sanderson JS (2012) Groundwater use by native plants in response to changes in precipitation in an intermountain basin. Journal of Arid Environments 83:25–34Google Scholar
  27. Laubhan MK (2004) Variation in hydrology, soils, and vegetation of natural palustrine wetlands among geologic provinces. In: McKinstry MC, Hubert WA, Anderson SH (ed) Wetland and riparian areas of the intermountain west: ecology and management. University of Texas Press, pp 23–51Google Scholar
  28. Lemly AD, Kingsford RT, Thompson JR (2000) Irrigated agriculture and wildlife conservation: conflict on a global scale. Environmental Management 25:485–512PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lovvorn JR, Hart EA (2004) Irrigation, salinity, and landscape patterns of natural palustrine wetlands. In: McKinstry MC, Hubert WA, Anderson SH (ed) Wetland and riparian areas of the intermountain west: ecology and management. University of Texas Press, pp 105–129Google Scholar
  30. Luckey RR, Cannia JC (2006) Groundwater flow model of the western model unit of the Nebraska Cooperative Hydrology Study (COHYST) area: Lincoln, Nebr. Dept. of Natural Resources, http://cohyst.dnr.ne.gov/adobe/dc012WMU_GFMR_060519.pdf. Accessed February 2010
  31. McCune B, Mefford J (2006) PC-ORD. Multivariate analysis of ecological data. Version 5.10.MjM Software. Gleneden Beach, OregonGoogle Scholar
  32. Mitsch WJ, Gosselink JG (2000) Wetlands, 3rd edn. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  33. Morgan RM (1993) Water and the land: a history of American irrigation. The Irrigation Association, FairfaxGoogle Scholar
  34. NRCS (2013) United States Department of Agriculture. Web Soil Survey. Available online at http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/. Accessed [03/21/13]
  35. Peck DE, Lovvorn JR (2001) The importance of flood irrigation in water supply to wetlands in Laramie Basin, Wyoming, USA. Wetlands 21:370–378CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Petitta M, Mugnozza GS, Barbieri M, Fasani GB, Esposito C (2010) Hydrodynamics and isotopic investigations for evaluating the mechanisms and amount of groundwater seepage through a rockslide dam. Hydrological Processes 24:3510–3520CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Pisani DJ (2002) Water and the American government. The Reclamation Bureau, national water policy, and the west, 1902–1935. University of California Press, Ltd, LondonGoogle Scholar
  38. Rhoades JD, Chanduvi F, Lesch S (1999) Soil salinity assessment. Methods and interpretation of electrical conductivity measurements. FAO Irrigation and Drainage Paper 57. ISSN 0254–5284Google Scholar
  39. Riverside Technology, Inc (2005) North Poudre Service Area Feasibility Study. Task 1 Deliverable. Prepared for North Poudre Irrigation Company in association with Hines Irrigation Consultants, Inc. and Ross Bethel, LLCGoogle Scholar
  40. Rumble MA, Willis DW, Smith BE (2004) Wildlife of created palustrine wetlands. In: McKinstry MC, Hubert WA, Anderson SH (ed) Wetland and riparian areas of the intermountain west: ecology and management. University of Texas Press, pp 216–239Google Scholar
  41. Sanderson JS, Cooper DJ (2008) Groundwater discharge by evapotranspiration in wetlands of an arid mountain basin. Journal of Hydrology 351:344–359CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Strange EM, Fausch KD, Covich AP (1999) Sustaining ecosystem services in human-dominated watersheds: biohydrology and ecosystem processes in the South Platte River Basin. Environmental Management 24:39–54PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Systat Software, Inc. (2007) San Jose California USA, http://www.sigmaplot.com/products/sigmaplot/cite_sp.php
  44. terBraak CJF, Smilauer P (1998) CANOCO reference manual and user’s guide to CANOCO for windows: software for canonical community ordination (version 4). Microcomputer Power, IthacaGoogle Scholar
  45. USDA (2001) Irrigation and drainage. A national research plan to meet coming demands and protect the environment. Agricultural Research Service, Program Aid 1680. Available at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/np/irrigationdrainage/IrrigDrainBro.pdf. Accessed June 2012
  46. USDA (2009) 2007 Agricultural Census. Available at http://www.agcensus.usda.gov. Accessed April 2012
  47. USGS (1996) National water summary on wetland resources. USGS Water-Supply Paper 2425Google Scholar
  48. Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission (1998) Water in the west: Challenge for the next century. http://wwa.colorado.edu/western_water_law/docs/WaterintheWest_WPPRAC.pdf. Accessed October 2010
  49. Wiener JD, Dwire KA, Skagen SK, Crifasi RR, Yates D (2008) Riparian ecosystem consequences of water redistribution along the Colorado front range. Water Resources IMPACT 10:18–21Google Scholar
  50. Wurster FC, Cooper DJ, Sanford WE (2003) Stream/aquifer interactions at Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Colorado: influences on interdunal wetlands disappearance. Journal of Hydrology 271:77–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Society of Wetland Scientists 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeremy P. Sueltenfuss
    • 1
  • David J. Cooper
    • 2
  • Richard L. Knight
    • 3
  • Reagan M. Waskom
    • 4
  1. 1.Colorado Natural Heritage ProgramColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  2. 2.Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship and Graduate Degree Program in EcologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  3. 3.Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and Graduate Degree Program in EcologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  4. 4.Colorado Water InstituteColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA

Personalised recommendations