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Forest cover lessens the impact of drought on streamflow in Puerto Rico

March 15, 2022

Tropical regions are experiencing high rates of forest cover loss coupled with changes in the volume and timing of rainfall. These shifts can compromise streamflow and water provision, highlighting the need to identify how forest cover influences streamflow generation under variable rainfall conditions. Although rainfall is the key driver of streamflow regimes, the role of forests is less clear, particularly in tropical regions where forest loss is an ongoing risk. Forest cover loss alters evapotranspiration, rainfall infiltration and storage, and may increase stream ecosystem vulnerability to rainfall extremes. Puerto Rico, an island with spatially heterogenous forest cover and a marked geographic rainfall gradient, is projected to experience more frequent droughts and flash flooding. Using 15-minute streamflow data collected between 2005 and 2016 from 20 USGS stream gages and 3-hourly Multi-Source Weighted-Ensemble Precipitation rainfall estimates, we utilized flow-duration curves and linear mixed regression models to examine the role of forest cover in regulating the timing and volume of streamflow. The mixed model approach helps to account for differences in watershed characteristics. We determined the effects of rainfall and forest cover on low and peak flows in Puerto Rican streams, then evaluated changes in these relationships under dry and wet antecedent rainfall conditions. Watersheds with high forest cover had consistently greater low and peak streamflow than deforested ones under all rainfall conditions, although the effect was more marked during wet antecedent conditions, suggesting that peak flow is largely the result of saturation excess overland flow. During dry antecedent rainfall conditions, highly forested watersheds had higher streamflow than deforested ones, suggesting greater hillslope storage and release may also be at play. Our results demonstrate that forest cover generated a net increase in hillslope infiltration and storage and may lessen drought impacts on streamflow in Puerto Rico. Resilience to prolonged drought may be limited by finite water storage potential in this steep, mountainous setting, highlighting maintenance of forest cover as an important water management strategy to increase infiltration.

Publication Year 2022
Title Forest cover lessens the impact of drought on streamflow in Puerto Rico
DOI 10.1002/hyp.14551
Authors Jazlynn S. Hall, Martha A. Scholl, Yuri Gorokhovich, Maria Uriarte
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Hydrological Processes
Index ID 70230900
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization WMA - Earth System Processes Division