Hydrologic effects of large southwestern USA wildfires significantly increase regional water supply: Fact or fiction?

M. L. Wine, D. Cadol

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations

Abstract

In recent years climate change and historic fire suppression have increased the frequency of large wildfires in the southwestern USA, motivating study of the hydrological consequences of these wildfires at point and watershed scales, typically over short periods of time. These studies have revealed that reduced soil infiltration capacity and reduced transpiration due to tree canopy combustion increase streamflow at the watershed scale. However, the degree to which these local increases in runoff propagate to larger scales - relevant to urban and agricultural water supply - remains largely unknown, particularly in semi-arid mountainous watersheds co-dominated by winter snowmelt and the North American monsoon. To address this question, we selected three New Mexico watersheds - the Jemez (1223 km2), Mogollon (191 km2), and Gila (4807 km2) - that together have been affected by over 100 wildfires since 1982. We then applied climate-driven linear models to test for effects of fire on streamflow metrics after controlling for climatic variability. Here we show that, after controlling for climatic and snowpack variability, significantly more streamflow discharged from the Gila watershed for three to five years following wildfires, consistent with increased regional water yield due to enhanced infiltration-excess overland flow and groundwater recharge at the large watershed scale. In contrast, we observed no such increase in discharge from the Jemez watershed following wildfires. Fire regimes represent a key difference between the contrasting responses of the Jemez and Gila watersheds with the latter experiencing more frequent wildfires, many caused by lightning strikes. While hydrologic dynamics at the scale of large watersheds were previously thought to be climatically dominated, these results suggest that if one fifth or more of a large watershed has been burned in the previous three to five years, significant increases in water yield can be expected.

Original languageEnglish
Article number085006
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Volume11
Issue number8
DOIs
StatePublished - 18 Aug 2016
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • New Mexico
  • North American monsoon
  • geographic information systems
  • snow water equivalent
  • streamflow
  • water yield
  • watershed hydrology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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