Over one‐third of the land area in the South Platte Basin of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming, has been converted to croplands. Irrigated cropland now comprises 8% of the basin, while dry croplands make up 31%. We used the RHESSys model to compare the changes in plant productivity and vegetation‐related hydrological processes that occurred as a result of either land cover alteration or directional temperature changes (−2°C, +4°C). Land cover change exerted more control over annual plant productivity and water fluxes for converted grasslands, while the effect of temperature changes on productivity and water fluxes was stronger in the mountain vegetation. Throughout the basin, land cover change increased the annual loss of water to the atmosphere by 114 mm via evaporation and transpiration, an increase of 37%. Both irrigated and nonirrigated grains became active earlier in the year than shortgrass steppe, leading to a seasonal shift in water losses to the atmosphere. Basin‐wide photosynthesis increased by 80% due to grain production. In contrast, a 4°C warming scenario caused annual transpiration to increase by only 3% and annual evaporation to increase by 28%, for a total increase of 71 mm. Warming decreased basin‐wide photosynthesis by 16%. There is a large elevational range from east to west in the South Platte Basin, which encompasses the western edge of the Great Plains and the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains. This elevational gain is accompanied by great changes in topographic complexity, vegetation type, and climate. Shortgrass steppe and crops found at elevations between 850 and 1800 m give way to coniferous forests and tundra between 1800 and 4000 m. Climate is increasingly dominated by winter snow precipitation with increasing elevation, and the timing of snowmelt influences tundra and forest ecosystem productivity, soil moisture, and downstream discharge. Mean annual precipitation of <500 mm on the plains below 1800 m is far less than potential evapotranspiration of 1000–1500 mm and is insufficient for optimum plant productivity. The changes in water flux and photosynthesis from conversion of steppe to cropland are the result of redistribution of snowmelt water from the mountains and groundwater pumping through irrigation projects.


Earth Systems Research Center

Publication Date


Journal Title

Ecological Applications


Ecological Society of America (ESA)

Document Type



© 1998 by the Ecological Society of America.


This is an article published by Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Ecological Applications in 1998, available online:[1037:EOLCWR]2.0.CO;2