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Summer monsoon rains benefit underground aquifers of the desert Southwest

The summer monsoon season in the deserts of the Southwest U.S. is known for bringing torrents of water, often filling dry streambeds and flooding urban streets. A common misconception, however, is that most of the water is swept away into large rivers, with very little percolating into underground aquifers. Using a combination of field instruments, unmanned aerial vehicles and a hydrologic model, a team of researchers affiliated with Arizona State University and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Jornada Basin Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site has been studying monsoon rainfall and its impact on groundwater recharge in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico. Jornada Basin is one of 28 NSF LTER sites located in ecosystems from salt marshes to forests, coral reefs to arctic tundra. In their study, the scientists focused on measuring hydrologic and ecological conditions on piedmont slopes, locally known as bajadas, which connect mountain ranges with river valleys. Bajadas have often been ignored as sources of groundwater recharge. The findings demonstrate that a surprising amount of rainfall, nearly 25 percent, from monsoon storms is absorbed into small streambeds and percolates into the groundwater system. The findings are applicable to arid piedmont slopes anywhere on Earth. With water an increasingly precious resource, a better understanding of how groundwater is recharged could help communities across the globe.

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