Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Hydrologic processes in deep vadose zones in interdrainage arid environments

January 1, 2004

A unifying theory for the hydrology of desert vadose zones is particularly timely considering the rising population and water stresses in arid and semiarid regions. Conventional models cannot reconcile the apparent discrepancy between upward flow indicated by hydraulic gradient data and downward flow suggested by environmental tracer data in deep vadose zone profiles. A conceptual model described here explains both hydraulic and tracer data remarkably well by incorporating the hydrologic role of desert plants that encroached former juniper woodland 10 to 15 thousand years ago in the southwestern United States. Vapor transport also plays an important role in redistributing moisture through deep soils, particularly in coarse-grained sediments. Application of the conceptual model to several interdrainage arid settings reproduces measured matric potentials and chloride accumulation by simulating the transition from downward flow to upward flow just below the root zone initiated by climate and vegetation change. Model results indicate a slow hydraulic drying response in deep vadose zones that enables matric potential profiles to be used to distinguish whether precipitation episodically percolated below the root zone or was completely removed via evapotranspiration during the majority of the Holocene. Recharge declined dramatically during the Holocene in interdrainage basin floor settings of arid and semiarid basins. Current flux estimates across the water table in these environmental settings, are on the order of 0.01 to 0.1 mm yr-1 and may be recharge (downward) or discharge (upward) depending on vadose zone characteristics, such as soil texture, geothermal gradient, and water table depth. In summary, diffuse recharge through the basin floor probably contributes only minimally to the total recharge in arid and semiarid basins.

Publication Year 2004
Title Hydrologic processes in deep vadose zones in interdrainage arid environments
DOI 10.1029/009WSA02
Authors Michelle Ann Walvoord, Bridget R. Scanlon
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Series Title Water Science and Application
Index ID 70194933
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Nevada Water Science Center