Iroumé, Andrés; Jones, Julia; Bathurst, James C. 2021. Forest operations, tree species composition and decline in rainfall explain runoff changes in the Nacimiento experimental catchments, south central Chile. Hydrological Processes. 35(6): 21. doi:https://doi.org/10.1002/hyp.14257
Few long-term studies have explored how intensively managed short rotation forest plantations interact with climate variability. We examine how prolonged severe drought and forest operations affect runoff in 11 experimental catchments on private corporate forest land near Nacimiento in south central Chile over the period 2008–2019. The catchments (7.7–414 ha) contain forest plantations of exotic fast-growing species (Pinus radiata, Eucalyptus spp.) at various stages of growth in a Mediterranean climate (mean long-term annual rainfall = 1381 mm). Since 2010, a drought, unprecedented in recent history, has reduced rainfall at Nacimiento by 20%, relative to the long-term mean. Pre-drought runoff ratios were 0.4 under 21-year-old Radiata pine and >0.8 where herbicide treatments had controlled vegetation for 2 years in 38% of the catchment area. Early in the study period, clearcutting of Radiata pine (85%–95% of catchment area) increased streamflow by 150 mm as compared with the year before harvest, while clearcutting and partial cuts of Eucalyptus did not increase streamflow. During 2008–2019, the combination of emerging drought and forestry treatments (replanting with Eucalyptus after clearcutting of Radiata pine and Eucalyptus) reduced streamflow by 400–500 mm, and regeneration of previously herbicide-treated vegetation combined with growth of Eucalyptus plantations reduced streamflow by 1125 mm (87% of mean annual precipitation 2010–2019). These results from one of the most comprehensive forest catchment studies in the world on private industrial forest land indicate that multiple decades of forest management have reduced deep soil moisture reservoirs. This effect has been exacerbated by drought and conversion from Radiata pine to Eucalyptus, apparently largely eliminating subsurface supply to streamflow. The findings reveal tradeoffs between wood production and water supply, provide lessons for adapting forest management to the projected future drier climate in Chile, and underscore the need for continued experimental work in managed forest plantations.