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Conversion to drip irrigated agriculture may offset historic anthropogenic and wildfire contributions to sediment production


This study is an investigation into the roles of wildfire and changing agricultural practices in controlling the inter-decadal scale trends of suspended sediment production from semi-arid mountainous rivers. In the test case, a decreasing trend in suspended sediment concentrations was found in the lower Salinas River, California between 1967 and 2011. Event to decadal scale patterns in sediment production in the Salinas River have been found to be largely controlled by antecedent hydrologic conditions. Decreasing suspended sediment concentrations over the last 15years of the record departed from those expected from climatic/hydrologic forcing. Sediment production from the mountainous headwaters of the central California Coast Ranges is known to be dominated by the interaction of wildfire and large rainfall/runoff events, including the Arroyo Seco, an ~700km(2) subbasin of the Salinas River. However, the decreasing trend in Salinas River suspended sediment concentrations run contrary to increases in the watershed's effective burn area over time. The sediment source area of the Salinas River is an order of magnitude larger than that of the Arroyo Seco, and includes a more complicated mosaic of land cover and land use. The departure from hydrologic forcings on suspended sediment concentration patterns was found to coincide with a rapid conversion of irrigation practices from sprinkler and furrow to subsurface drip irrigation. Changes in agricultural operations appear to have decreased sediment supply to the Salinas River over the late 20th to early 21st centuries, obscuring the influence of wildfire on suspended sediment production.

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