Vegetation-groundwater dynamics at a former uranium mill site following invasion of a biocontrol agent: a time series analysis of Landsat normalized difference vegetation index data.
Because groundwater recharge in dry regions is generally low, arid and semiarid environments have been considered well-suited for long-term isolation of hazardous materials (e.g., radioactive waste). In these dry regions, water lost (transpired) by plants and evaporated from the soil surface, collectively termed evapotranspiration (ET), is usually the primary discharge component in the water balance. Therefore, vegetation can potentially affect groundwater flow and contaminant transport at waste disposal sites. We studied vegetation health and ET dynamics at a Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA) disposal site in Shiprock, New Mexico, where a floodplain alluvial aquifer was contaminated by mill effluent. Vegetation on the floodplain was predominantly deep-rooted, non-native tamarisk shrubs (Tamarix sp.). After the introduction of the tamarisk beetle (Diorhabda sp.) as a biocontrol agent, the health of the invasive tamarisk on the Shiprock floodplain declined. We used Landsat normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) data to measure greenness and a remote sensing algorithm to estimate landscape-scale ET along the floodplain of the UMTRCA site in Shiprock prior to (2000-2009) and after (2010-2018) beetle establishment. Using groundwater level data collected from 2011 to 2014, we also assessed the role of ET in explaining seasonal variations in depth to water of the floodplain. Growing season scaled NDVI decreased 30% (p < .001), while ET decreased 26% from the pre- to post-beetle period and seasonal ET estimates were significantly correlated with groundwater levels from 2011 to 2014 (r2=.71; p=.009). Tamarisk greenness (a proxy for health) was significantly affected by Diorhabda but has partially recovered since 2012. Despite this, increased ET demand in the summer/fall period might reduce contaminant transport to the San Juan River during this period.