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Legacy Effects of Hydrologic Alteration in Playa Wetland Responses to Droughts

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Wetland conservation increasingly must account for climate change and legacies of previous land-use practices. Playa wetlands provide critical wildlife habitat, but may be impacted by intensifying droughts and previous hydrologic modifications. To inform playa restoration planning, we asked: (1) what are the trends in playa inundation? (2) what are the factors influencing inundation? (3) how is playa inundation affected by increasingly severe drought? (4) do certain playas provide hydrologic refugia during droughts, and (5) if so, how are refugia patterns related to historical modifications? Using remotely sensed surface-water data, we evaluated a 30-year time series (1985–2015) of inundation for 153 playas of the Great Basin, USA. Inundation likelihood and duration increased with wetter weather conditions and were greater in modified playas. Inundation probability was projected to decrease from 22% under average conditions to 11% under extreme drought, with respective annual inundation decreasing from 1.7 to 0.9 months. Only 4% of playas were inundated for at least 2 months in each of the 5 driest years, suggesting their potential as drought refugia. Refugial playas were larger and more likely to have been modified, possibly because previous land managers selected refugial playas for modification. These inundation patterns can inform efforts to restore wetland functions and to conserve playa habitats as climate conditions change.

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Russell, M. T., Cartwright, J. M., Collins, G. H., Long, R. A., & Eitel, J. H. (2020). Legacy Effects of Hydrologic Alteration in Playa Wetland Responses to Droughts. Wetlands, 40(6), 2011–2024.

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