Nonlinear groundwater influence on biophysical indicators of ecosystem services

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Groundwater is a fundamental control on biophysical processes underpinning essential ecosystem services (ES). However, interactions and feedbacks among groundwater, climate and multiple ES remain less well understood. We investigated groundwater effects on a portfolio of food, water and biogeochemical ES indicators in an urbanizing agricultural watershed. Our results show that food production, water quality and quantity, and flood control are most sensitive to groundwater, with the strongest responses under wet and dry climate extremes. Climate mediates groundwater effects, such that several ES have synergies during dry climate, but trade-offs (groundwater increased some ES but declined others) under wet climate. There is substantial spatial heterogeneity in groundwater effects on ES, which is driven primarily by water table depth (WTD) and is also sensitive to soil texture and land cover. Most ES indicators respond nonlinearly to WTD when groundwater is within a critical depth (approximately 2.5 m) of land surface, indicating that small WTD changes can have disproportionately large effects on ES in shallow groundwater areas. Within this critical WTD, increasingly shallow groundwater leads to nonlinear increases in surface flood risk, sediment erosion and phosphorus yield; nonlinear decreases in drainage to the deep vadose zone and thus groundwater recharge; and bidirectional responses of crop and grass production, carbon storage and nitrate leaching. Our study illustrates the complex role of groundwater in affecting multiple ES and highlights that strategically managing groundwater may enhance ES resilience to climate extremes in shallow groundwater settings.

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Fig. 1: Land use/cover, WTD and groundwater effects on ES indicators in the Yahara Watershed.
Fig. 2: Groundwater effects on ES indicators at the grid-cell level, as a function of WTD.
Fig. 3: Influence of land use/cover and soil texture on groundwater effects on ES indicators at the grid-cell level.
Fig. 4: Differences in modelled ES indicators with and without groundwater.

Data availability

The datasets generated and analysed in this study are available from the authors upon request.


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Funding support is from the National Science Foundation Water Sustainability and Climate Program under grant DEB-1038759 and the North Temperate Lakes Long-Term Ecological Research (DEB-1440297). We thank P. Pinkas for computational assistance. J.Q. acknowledges the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch Project (FLA-FTL-005640) and McIntire-Stennis (1014703) projects for partial financial support of this work.

Author information

J.Q. and S.C.Z. designed the research and analysed data. J.Q., S.C.Z., M.M. and E.G.B. performed the research. J.Q., S.C.Z., M.M., E.G.B., C.J.K. and S.P.L. interpreted the results. J.Q. and S.C.Z. led the writing process and all authors contributed substantially with commentary, edits and revisions.

Correspondence to Jiangxiao Qiu.

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Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Figs. 1–12 and Supplementary Refs. 1–75

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Qiu, J., Zipper, S.C., Motew, M. et al. Nonlinear groundwater influence on biophysical indicators of ecosystem services. Nat Sustain 2, 475–483 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41893-019-0278-2

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