Evapotranspiration Mapping for Forest Management in California's Sierra Nevada
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Evapotranspiration Mapping for Forest Management in California's Sierra Nevada


We assessed the response of densely forested watersheds with little apparent annual water limitation to forest disturbance and climate variability, by studying how past wildfires changed forest evapotranspiration, and what past evapotranspiration patterns imply for the availability of subsurface water storage for drought resistance. We determined annual spatial patterns of evapotranspiration using a top-down statistical model, correlating measured annual evapotranspiration from eddycovariance towers across California with NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) measured by satellite, and with annual precipitation. The study area was the Yuba and American River watersheds, two densely forested watersheds in the northern Sierra Nevada. Wildfires in the 1985-2015 period resulted in significant post-fire reductions in evapotranspiration for at least 5 years, and in some cases for more than 20 years. The levels of biomass removed in medium-intensity fires (25- 75% basal area loss), similar to magnitudes expected from forest treatments for fuels reduction and forest health, reduced evapotranspiration by as much 150-200 mm yr-1 for the first 5 years. Rates of recovery in post-wildfire evapotranspiration confirm the need for follow-up forest treatments at intervals of 5-20 years to sustain lower evapotranspiration, depending on local landscape attributes and interannual climate. Using the metric of cumulative precipitation minus evapotranspiration (P-ET) during multi-year dry periods, we found that forests in the study area showed little evidence of moisture stress during the 1985-2018 period of our analysis, owing to relatively small reliance on interannual subsurface water storage to meet dry-year evapotranspiration needs of vegetation. However, more-severe or sustained drought periods will push some lower-elevation forests in the area studied toward the cumulative P-ET thresholds previously associated with widespread forest mortality in the southern Sierra Nevada.

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