Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Texas surprise: When trees, shrubs replace grasses, water flows can increase

Contrary to prevailing wisdom, the takeover of rangelands by trees and shrubs can increase flows of streams and recharging of groundwater, a new study shows. The soon-to-be published analysis of many decades of historical records for four central Texas river basins challenges widespread perceptions that woody plants have the opposite effects on streams and aquifers.

The researchers found evidence that, from around 1890 to 1960, overgrazing and resultant soil degradation, not encroachment by woody plants, were the main culprits behind reductions in streamflows and recharging of groundwater in the semiarid central region known as the Edwards Plateau. The region is the primary water source for the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies the city of San Antonio and numerous smaller municipalities.

Large numbers of cattle, sheep, and goats that continuously grazed the area's rangelands led to widespread soil degradation, partly hindering the amount of water recharging springs and groundwater, says hydrologist Bradford Wilcox of Texas A&M University and Texas AgriLife Research, in College Station, Texas.

He and Yun Huang, a former graduate student at Texas A&M, will publish their results in an upcoming issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

From 1880 to 1900, there were more animals on the land than it could support, Wilcox says. For a short period of time near the turn of the last century, stocking rates were 10 times greater than current levels. Since the late 1900s, however, as fewer cattle and other livestock were used on the land for agricultural production, the region has gone through revitalization.

"As a result, these landscapes are recovering, but they've also converted to woody plants," Wilcox notes. "We're also seeing large-scale increases in the amount of spring flows. This is opposite of what everybody is presuming -[which is that] the trees are there sucking up all of this water. The trees are actually allowing the water to infiltrate."

In fact, spring flows are twice as high as they were prior to 1950, he adds.

"This area was basically converted from grassland to shrubland after many years of heavy livestock grazing. What people have forgotten is that in the time period between healthy grasslands and the current shrublands, there was an extended period when the land was quite degraded. Subsequent to 1960, livestock numbers have declined and the landscape has recovered although there are now more cedar than in the past," Wilcox explains.

In the new study, he and Huang, who is now with LBG Guyton, in Austin, assess the hydrological changes that have taken place in the region as patterns of land use and vegetation changed. To do so, the researchers analyzed annual measurements dating back to 1925, or earlier, for the Nueces, Frio, Guadulupe, and Llano rivers. The measurements provide an annual record of 'baseflow,' or flow derived from groundwater only (i.e. springs) and of 'stormflow' or flow resulting from rainfall, for those rivers.

The scientists report that the total flow in the three of the four rivers has gone up in recent decades, "largely because contributions in the form of baseflow have increased." The baseflow of the fourth river also increased, although its total flow did not. Yet, rainfall in the region hasn't changed significantly.

Although the prevailing wisdom has been that proliferation of woody plants stifles infiltration of water back into aquifers, the new results suggest otherwise.

Moreover, the results have implications beyond the Edwards Plateau, Wilcox and Huang maintain, applying in general to "semiarid and subhumid rangelands in which springs and intermittent or perennial streams are found." For such regions, the transition to woody plants appears to be good news for regional water resources.

Photos of rangeland on the Edwards Plateau in degraded and recovering states, plus a map of the four studied river basins (and captions) are available for download with AGU's posted press release at:

"Woody Plant Encroachment Paradox: Rivers Rebound as Degraded Grasslands Convert to Woodlands"
Bradford P. Wilcox and Yun Huang, Ecosystem Science and Management, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA.
Contact information for authors:
Brad Wilcox, Professor, Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, 979-458-1899,
AGU Contact:
Peter Weiss
+1 (202) 777 7507
Texas A&M Contact:
Blair Fannin
+1 (979) 845-2259

Peter Weiss | American Geophysical Union
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht UCI and NASA document accelerated glacier melting in West Antarctica
26.10.2016 | University of California - Irvine

nachricht Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere
25.10.2016 | American Geophysical Union

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>