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  1. Dryland riparian woodlands are considered to be locally buffered from droughts by shallow and stable groundwater levels. However, climate change is causing more frequent and severe drought events, accompanied by warmer temperatures, collectively threatening the persistence of these groundwater dependent ecosystems through a combination of increasing evaporative demand and decreasing groundwater supply. We conducted a dendro-isotopic analysis of radial growth and seasonal (semi-annual) carbon isotope discrimination (Δ13C) to investigate the response of riparian cottonwood stands to the unprecedented California-wide drought from 2012 to 2019, along the largest remaining free-flowing river in Southern California. Our goals were to identify principal drivers and indicators of drought stress for dryland riparian woodlands, determine their thresholds of tolerance to hydroclimatic stressors, and ultimately assess their vulnerability to climate change. Riparian trees were highly responsive to drought conditions along the river, exhibiting suppressed growth and strong stomatal closure (inferred from reduced Δ13C) during peak drought years. However, patterns of radial growth and Δ13C were quite variable among sites that differed in climatic conditions and rate of groundwater decline. We show that the rate of groundwater decline, as opposed to climate factors, was the primary driver of site differences in drought stress, and trees showed greatermore »sensitivity to temperature at sites subjected to faster groundwater decline. Across sites, higher correlation between radial growth and Δ13C for individual trees, and higher inter-correlation of Δ13C among trees were indicative of greater drought stress. Trees showed a threshold of tolerance to groundwater decline at 0.5 m year−1 beyond which drought stress became increasingly evident and severe. For sites that exceeded this threshold, peak physiological stress occurred when total groundwater recession exceeded 3 m. These findings indicate that drought-induced groundwater decline associated with more extreme droughts is a primary threat to dryland riparian woodlands and increases their susceptibility to projected warmer temperatures.« less
  2. Riparian ecosystems fundamentally depend on groundwater, especially in dryland regions, yet their water requirements and sources are rarely considered in water resource management decisions. Until recently, technological limitations and data gaps have hindered assessment of groundwater influences on riparian ecosystem health at the spatial and temporal scales relevant to policy and management. Here, we analyze Sentinel-2–derived normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI;n= 5,335,472 observations), field-based groundwater elevation (n= 32,051 observations), and streamflow alteration data for riparian woodland communities (n= 22,153 polygons) over a 5-y period (2015 to 2020) across California. We find that riparian woodlands exhibit a stress response to deeper groundwater, as evidenced by concurrent declines in greenness represented by NDVI. Furthermore, we find greater seasonal coupling of canopy greenness to groundwater for vegetation along streams with natural flow regimes in comparison with anthropogenically altered streams, particularly in the most water-limited regions. These patterns suggest that many riparian woodlands in California are subsidized by water management practices. Riparian woodland communities rely on naturally variable groundwater and streamflow components to sustain key ecological processes, such as recruitment and succession. Altered flow regimes, which stabilize streamflow throughout the year and artificially enhance water supplies to riparian vegetation in the dry season, disruptmore »the seasonal cycles of abiotic drivers to which these Mediterranean forests are adapted. Consequently, our analysis suggests that many riparian ecosystems have become reliant on anthropogenically altered flow regimes, making them more vulnerable and less resilient to rapid hydrologic change, potentially leading to future riparian forest loss across increasingly stressed dryland regions.

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  3. Free, publicly-accessible full text available April 18, 2023