A framework for understanding the hydroecology of impacted wet meadows in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges, California, USA

Meadows of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains of California, USA, support diverse and highly productive wet-meadow vegetation dominated by sedges, rushes, grasses, and other herbaceous species. These groundwater-dependent ecosystems rely on the persistence of a shallow water table throughout the dry summer. Case studies of Bear Creek, Last Chance, and Tuolumne meadow ecosystems are used to create a conceptual framework describing groundwater-ecosystem connections in this environment. The water requirements for wet-meadow vegetation at each site are represented as a water-table-depth hydrograph; however, these hydrographs were found to vary among sites. Causes of this variation include ( 1) differences in soil texture, which govern capillary effects and availability of vadose water and ( 2) elevation-controlled differences in climate that affect the phenology of the vegetation. The field observations show that spatial variation of water-table depth exerts strong control on vegetation composition and spatial patterning. Groundwater-flow modeling demonstrates that lower hydraulic-conductivity meadow sediments, higher groundwater-inflow rates, and a higher ratio of lateral to basal-groundwater inflow all encourage the persistence of a high water table and wet-meadow vegetation, particularly at the margin of the meadow, even in cases with moderate stream incision.
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