Microphytic crusts, shrub patches and water harvesting in the Negev Desert: the Shikim system

Abstract

Human-made contour banks are a central component of theShikim water harvesting system in Israel’s Negev Desert.Efficient water capture depends on the presence of a stable microphytic crustwhich directs surplus surface runoff into the banks where it is stored. We usedsimulated rainfall to examine the impact of soil surface disturbance on runoffand sediment transport, and the effect of this on the efficiency of resourcecapture within the Shikim system. Two disturbance regimes:1) removal of the microphytic crust only, and 2) removal of the crust and shrubpatches by cultivation, were compared with an undisturbed control. In theundisturbed state, 32% of rainfall was redistributed as runoff. This runoffpenetrated approximately 27% deeper under the shrub patches compared with themicrophytic crust. When the microphytic crust was destroyed by simulatedtrampling, the runoff coefficient declined to 13%, and there was no significantdifference in water penetration between shrub and crust patches. Completedestruction of the shrub hummocks and crust by cultivation resulted in adeclinein the runoff coefficient to 6%. The result of sustained disturbance in thesepatchy Negev shrublands is a breakdown in spatial heterogeneity, a loss ofecosystem function, a reduction in ecosystem goods and services such as plantdiversity and production, and ultimately a reduction in pastoral productivity.These results reinforce the view that microphytic crusts are critical for theefficient operation of the Shikim water harvesting system.Given that practices such as cultivation and trampling which disturbmicrophyticcrusts result in enhanced infiltration, crusts should be left intact tomaximisethe water harvesting efficiency in these desert landscapes.

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Eldridge, D.J., Zaady, E. & Shachak, M. Microphytic crusts, shrub patches and water harvesting in the Negev Desert: the Shikim system. Landscape Ecol 17, 587–597 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1021575503284

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  • Desert hydrology
  • Desert shrublands
  • Ecosystem services
  • Microphytic crust
  • Runoff and sediment production
  • Soil crust controls on ecosystem processes
  • Source-sink relationships
  • Water harvesting