Quantifying thresholds for native vegetation to salinity and waterlogging for the design of direct conservation approaches

Tara Horsnell

    Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis

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    A field-based project was undertaken to develop and test a mechanism which would allow for the correlation of the health of vegetation surrounding playa lakes in south-west Australia with the natural variation in salinity and waterlogging that occurs spatially and temporally in natural systems. The study was designed to determine threshold ranges of vegetation communities using moderately extensive data over short temporal periods which will guide the design of potential engineering solutions that manipulate hydrological regimes to ultimately conserve and protect native vegetation. A pair of playa lake ecosystems, surrounded by primary production land, was modelled with hydro-geological data collected from March 2006 to March 2007. The data was used to determine the hydroperiods of vegetation communities fringing playa lakes and provide insight into the areas and species that are most affected by extreme rainfall events which are hypothesised to have a significant, rapid deleterious effect on the ecosystems. The methodology was multi-faceted and included; a detailed topographical survey; vegetation surveys; hydrological and hydro-geological monitoring over a 12 month period. 4 The hydro-geological data and vegetation data was linked with the topographical survey at a high resolution for spatial analysis in a Geographic Information System (GIS) to determine the degree of waterlogging experienced by vegetation communities over the monitoring period. The study has found that the spatial and temporal variability of hydroperiods has been reduced by rising groundwater levels, a result of extensive clearing of native vegetation. Consequently populations are becoming extinct locally resulting in a shift in community composition. Extreme summer rainfall events also have a significant impact on the health of vegetation communities by increasing the duration of waterlogging over an annual cycle and in some areas expanding the littoral zone. Vegetation is most degraded at lower positions in the landscape where communities are becoming less diverse and dominated by salt tolerant halophytic species as a result of altered hydrological regimes. Some species appear to be able to tolerate groundwater depths of less than 2.0 m from the surface, however there are thresholds related to the duration at which groundwater is maintained at this depth. Potential engineering solutions include groundwater pumping and diverting water through drains to maintain sustainable hydroperiods for vegetation in areas with conservation value. The effectiveness and efficiency of the engineering solutions can be maximised by quantifying thresholds for vegetation that include sustainable durations of waterlogging. The study has quantified tolerance ranges to salinity and waterlogging with data collected over 12 months but species may be experiencing a transition period where they have 5 sustained irreversible damage that will result in their eventual mortality. With long-term monitoring, the methodology developed and tested in the study can be used to quantify the long-term tolerance ranges that are important for the application of conservation approaches that include engineering solutions.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2008


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