Ecohydrology of Sagebrush Steppe Rangelands on the INL Site (2013)

The Influence of Precipitation, Vegetation and Soil Properties on the Ecohydrology of Sagebrush Steppe Rangelands on the Idaho National Laboratory Site (2013)


Investigators and Affiliations

  • Matthew J. Germino, Ph.D., Research Ecologist, United States Geological Survey, Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, Boise Idaho


  • Lar Svenson, M.S., US Geological Survey, United States Geological Survey, Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, Boise Idaho
  • Keith Reinhardt, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow, Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho
  • Kevin Feris, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho
  • Kathleen Lohse, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho
  • Marie-Anne deGraff, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho
  • David Huber, Ph.D. candidate, Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho
  • Patrick Sorenson, M.S., Boise State University, Boise, Idaho
  • Patricia Xochi Campos, M.S. candidate, Boise State University, Boise Idaho
  • Cassandra Gause, B.S./M.S. candidate, Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho
  • Kate McAbee, M.S. candidate, Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho
  • Lindsay McCurran, M.S. candidate, Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho

Funding Sources

  • Idaho Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), National Science Foundation
  • U.S. Geological Survey, Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
  • U.S. Geological Survey, Northwest Climate Science Center
  • In-kind facilities and infrastructure support from DOE-Idaho, logistics support through Gonzales-Stoller Surveillance, LLC.



The INL Site and other landscapes having sagebrush steppe vegetation are experiencing a simultaneous change in climate and floristics that result from increases in exotic species. Determining the separate and combined/interactive effects of climate and vegetation change is important for assessing future changes on the landscape and for hydrologic processes.

This research uses the 72 experimental plots established and initially maintained for many years as the “Protective Cap Biobarrier Experiment” by Dr. Jay Anderson and the Environmental Surveillance, Education and Research program, and the experiment is also now referred to as the “INL Site Ecohydrology Study.” We are evaluating long-term impacts of different plant communities commonly found throughout Idaho subject to different precipitation regimes and to different soil depths. Treatments of amount and timing of precipitation (irrigation), soil depth, and either native/perennial or exotic grass vegetation allow researchers to investigate how vegetation, precipitation and soil interact to influence soil hydrology and ecosystem biogeochemistry. This information will be used to improve a variety of models, as well as provide data for these models.


The goal of this study is to assess the interactive and reciprocal effects of hydroclimate shifts and plant community composition on ecohydrological and biogeochemical processes, with the specific objectives to:

  • Determine response of vegetation to timing of irrigation and soil depth, and conversely the influence of plant communities and vegetation type on deep soil water infiltration
  • Investigate microbial communities and soil microbial enzymatic activity and soil aggregation/porosity, to assess whether fundamental ecosystem changes to treatments are occurring and could feed back on water flow patterns
  • Investigate changes in plant and soil nutrient pools and fluxes due to vegetation and precipitation differences.

Accomplishments through 2013:

In 2013 we continued to troubleshoot and make functional an additional set of TDR water content sensors installed in an effort to reduce our reliance on manual neutron-probe measurements. Ecosystem responses included measurement of litter deposition, plot biomass (clipping subplots) sagebrush growth and carbon isotopes, biogeochemical shifts, and CO2 exchange from large chamber measurements.

Our preliminary data suggest differences in sagebrush growth and seedling establishment are occurring as a result of the precipitation treatments, and are accompanied by shifts in litter deposition and biogeochemical patterns. Conclusive findings are expected within the next year as three students prepare their chapters and our synthesis for Northwest Climate Science Center on sagebrush responses is accomplished.

Publications, Theses, Reports:

  • Sorensen, P.O., Germino, M.J., Feris, K., 2013, Microbial community responses to 17 years of altered precipitation are seasonally dependent and coupled to co-varying effects of water content on vegetation and soil carbon. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 64: 155-163

  • Germino, M.J, Brabec, M., Davidson, B., Shinneman D., Halford A., Richardson B. 2013. Post-fire sagebrush establishment across the landscapes: experimental tests to inform restorationsuccess. Great Basin Consortium 3rd annual meeting, Reno, Nevada, Dec. 9.
  • Germino, M.J. Climate change vulnerability. Lecture to distributed class on Sagebrush and climate. 27 Sept. 2013, delivered at Boise State University
  • Huber, D.P., Lohse, K., Germino, M.J. 2013. Climate Controls on Soil Hydrological and Nutrient Partitioning in Dryland Ecosystems. Chapman conference on Soil-mediated drivers ofcoupled biogeochemical and hydrological processes across scales. Tucson AZ. October 21-24
  • Germino, M.J., Svenson, L., Reinhardt, K. (2013) Sagebrush responses to climate. Intermountain Native Plant Summit (7th annual), Boise, Idaho, March 26-27, 2013 [INVITED]
  • Germino, M.J., Reinhardt, K. 2013. Experimental evidence for sagebrush responses to climate. Great Basin Consortium, 2nd annual meeting, Boise Idaho, January 14, 2013