Woody plant encroachment alters soil hydrological properties and reduces downward flux of water in tallgrass prairie

Abstract

Background and aims

Plant and soil interact to shape ecosystem properties, processes and services provided. Changes in ecosystem productivity, biogeochemical cycling and plant herbivore interactions have been widely reported when herbaceous plants are replaced by woody plants, but limited information is available on how woody plant encroachment alters temporal dynamics of deep soil moisture and long-term drainage rates in the tallgrass prairie.

Methods

We quantified soil water content using capacitance probes for a period of four years, and used both chloride mass balance (CMB) and HYDRUS-1D modelling to depict alteration of deep soil water dynamics and long-term drainage rates after Juniperus virginiana (eastern redcedar) encroachment into the tallgrass prairie.

Results

Eastern redcedar encroachment resulted in more frequent depletion of soil water at the 80-cm depth. The chloride ion (Cl) was used to estimate deep drainage rate because of its nonreactive nature. The ion is neither repelled nor absorbed by soil particles and sediments. Mean soil chloride concentration after encroachment was significantly higher than that in tallgrass prairie. The estimated deep drainage rate based on CMB method was 9.0 mm yr.−1 in the tallgrass prairie and 0.3 mm yr.−1 in the encroached site. The cumulative bottom fluxes were 27.5 cm and 17.1 cm in the tallgrass prairie and eastern redcedar encroached sites, respectively for the HYDRUS simulation period 2011–2014.

Conclusions

Transformation of tallgrass prairie to eastern redcedar woodland in the rolling hills of the southern Great Plains reduced soil water content, water storage and downward flux of water. Thus, woody plant encroachment into tallgrass prairie has the potential to reduce groundwater recharge in dry sub-humid regions.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments. The study was supported by USGS OWRRI grants and USDA NIFA award (2014-67010-216530). The data analysis and paper writing were partially supported with funding from NSF EPSCoR (NSF-1301789), NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) program (DEB-1413900) and Tianjin Key Laboratory of Water Resources and Environment. The authors extend their appreciation to Briana Sallee from Plant and Soil Sciences, Oklahoma State University, for her technical assistance with HYDRUS-1D. The authors thank Dr. Daihua Qi for assisting in the soil sampling for chloride study and Elaine Stebler for providing logistical support. Thanks go to Drs. Todd Halihan, Rodney Will and Garey Fox for their constructive comments on the earlier version of the manuscript, and Dr. Henry Adams for proof reading the manuscript before submission.

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Correspondence to Chris B. Zou.

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Acharya, B.S., Hao, Y., Ochsner, T.E. et al. Woody plant encroachment alters soil hydrological properties and reduces downward flux of water in tallgrass prairie. Plant Soil 414, 379–391 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-016-3138-0

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Keywords

  • Chloride mass balance
  • HYDRUS-1D
  • Tallgrass prairie
  • Juniperus virginiana
  • Woody plant encroachment
  • Deep drainage