Of the operations required for reclamation in arid and semi-arid regions, establishing vegetation entails the most uncertainty due to reliance on unpredictable rainfall for seed germination and seedling establishment. The frequency of successful vegetation establishment was estimated based on a land surface model driven by hourly atmospheric forcing data, 7 years of eddy-flux data, and 31 years of rainfall data at two adjacent sites in southern Arizona, USA. Two scenarios differing in the required imbibition time for successful germination were evaluated—2 or 3 days availability of sufficient surface moisture. Establishment success was assumed to occur if plants could germinate and if the drying front in the soil did not overtake the growth of seminal roots. Based on our results, vegetation establishment could be expected to fail in 32 % of years. In the worst 10-year span, six of ten plantings would have failed. In the best 10-year span, only one of ten was projected to fail. Across all assessments, at most 3 years in a row failed and 6 years in a row were successful. Funding for reclamation seeding must be available to allow reseeding the following year if sufficient amount and timing of rainfall does not occur.