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Data Extent

Rainfall simulation experiments in the Southwestern USA using the Walnut Gulch Rainfall Simulator

Preservation and management of semi-arid ecosystems requires understanding of the processes involved in soil erosion and their interaction with plant community. Rainfall simulations on natural plots provide an effective way of obtaining a large amount of erosion data under controlled conditions in a short period of time. This dataset contains hydrological (rainfall, runoff, flow velocity), erosion (sediment concentration and rate), vegetation (plant cover), and other supplementary information from 272 rainfall simulation experiments conducted on 23 rangeland locations in Arizona and Nevada between 2002 and 2013. The dataset advances our understanding of basic hydrological and biological processes that drive soil erosion on arid rangelands. It can be used to quantify runoff, infiltration, and erosion rates on a variety of ecological sites in the Southwestern USA. Inclusion of wildfire and brush treatment locations combined with long term observations makes it important for studying vegetation recovery, ecological transitions, and effect of management. It is also a valuable resource for erosion model parameterization and validation.

Rainfall was generated by a portable, computer-controlled, variable intensity simulator (Walnut Gulch Rainfall Simulator). The WGRS can deliver rainfall rates ranging between 13 and 178 mm/h with variability coefficient of 11% across 2 by 6.1 m area. Estimated kinetic energy of simulated rainfall was 204 kJ/ha/mm and drop size ranged from 0.288 to 7.2 mm. Detailed description and design of the simulator is available in Stone and Paige (2003). Prior to each field season the simulator was calibrated over a range of intensities using a set of 56 rain gages. During the experiments windbreaks were setup around the simulator to minimize the effect of wind on rain distribution. On some of the plots, in addition to rainfall only treatment, run-on flow was applied at the top edge of the plot. The purpose of run-on water application was to simulate hydrological processes that occur on longer slopes (>6 m) where upper portion of the slope contributes runoff onto the lower portion.

Runoff rate from the plot was measured using a calibrated V-shaped supercritical flume equipped with depth gage. Overland flow velocity on the plots was measured using electrolyte and fluorescent dye solution. Dye moving from the application point at 3.2 m distance to the outlet was timed with stopwatch. Electrolyte transport in the flow was measured by resistivity sensors imbedded in edge of the outlet flume. Maximum flow velocity was defined as velocity of the leading edge of the solution and was determined from beginning of the electrolyte breakthrough curve and verified by visual observation (dye). Mean flow velocity was calculated using mean travel time obtained from the electrolyte solution breakthrough curve using moment equation.

Soil loss from the plots was determined from runoff samples collected during each run. Sampling interval was variable and aimed to represent rising and falling limbs of the hydrograph, any changes in runoff rate, and steady state conditions. This resulted in approximately 30 to 50 samples per simulation.

Shortly before every simulation plot surface and vegetative cover was measured at 400 point grid using a laser and line-point intercept procedure (Herrick et al., 2005). Vegetative cover was classified as forbs, grass, and shrub. Surface cover was characterized as rock, litter, plant basal area, and bare soil. These 4 metrics were further classified as protected (located under plant canopy) and unprotected (not covered by the canopy). In addition, plant canopy and basal area gaps were measured on the plots over three lengthwise and six crosswise transects.

Experimental procedure
Four to eight 6.1 m by 2 m replicated rainfall simulation plots were established on each site. The plots were bound by sheet metal borders hammered into the ground on three sides. On the down slope side a collection trough was installed to channel runoff into the measuring flume. If a site was revisited, repeat simulations were always conducted on the same long term plots.

The experimental procedure was as follows. First, the plot was subjected to 45 min, 65 mm/h intensity simulated rainfall (dry run) intended to create initial saturated condition that could be replicated across all sites. This was followed by a 45 minute pause and a second simulation with varying intensity (wet run). During wet runs two modes of water application were used as: rainfall or run-on. Rainfall wet runs typically consisted of series of application rates (65, 100, 125, 150, and 180 mm/h) that were increased after runoff had reached steady state for at least five minutes. Runoff samples were collected on the rising and falling limb of the hydrograph and during each steady state (a minimum of 3 samples). Overland flow velocities were measured during each steady state as previously described. When used, run-on wet runs followed the same procedure as rainfall runs, except water application rates varied between 100 and 300 mm/h. In approximately 20% of simulation experiments the wet run was followed by another simulation (wet2 run) after a 45 min pause. Wet2 runs were similar to wet runs and also consisted of series of varying intensity rainfalls and/or run-on inputs.

Resulting Data
The dataset contains hydrological, erosion, vegetation, and ecological data from 272 rainfall simulation experiments conducted on 12 sq. m plots at 23 rangeland locations in Arizona and Nevada. The experiments were conducted between 2002 and 2013, with some locations being revisited multiple times.

Release Date
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Ag Data Commons
Spatial / Geographical Coverage Location
Arizona, Nevada, USA
Temporal Coverage
January 1, 2002 to December 31, 2013
Data Dictionary
Contact Name
Polyakov, Viktor
Contact Email
Public Access Level
Program Code
005:040 - Department of Agriculture - National Research
Bureau Code
005:18 - Agricultural Research Service