Effects of stream flow intermittency on riparian vegetation of a semiarid region river (San Pedro River, Arizona)

Juliet Stromberg, Kenneth J. Bagstad, James M. Leenhouts, Sharon J. Lite, Elizabeth Makings

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


The San Pedro River in the southwestern United States retains a natural flood regime and has several reaches with perennial stream flow and shallow ground water. However, much of the river flows intermittently. Urbanization-linked declines in regional ground-water levels have raised concerns over the future status of the riverine ecosystem in some parts of the river, while restoration-linked decreases in agricultural ground-water pumping are expected to increase stream flows in other parts. This study describes the response of the streamside herbaceous vegetation to changes in stream flow permanence. During the early summer dry season, streamside herbaceous cover and species richness declined continuously across spatial gradients of flow permanence, and composition shifted from hydric to mesic species at sites with more intermittent flow. Hydrologic threshold values were evident for one plant functional group: Schoenoplectus acutus, Juncus torreyi, and other hydric riparian plants declined sharply in cover with loss of perennial stream flow. In contrast, cover of mesic riparian perennials (including Cynodon dactylon, an introduced species) increased at sites with intermittent flow. Patterns of hydric and mesic riparian annuals varied by season: in the early summer dry season their cover declined continuously as flow became more intermittent, while in the late summer wet season their cover increased as the flow became more intermittent. Periodic drought at the intermittent sites may increase opportunities for establishment of these annuals during the monsoonal flood season. During the late summer flood season, stream flow was present at most sites, and fewer vegetation traits were correlated with flow permanence; cover and richness were correlated with other environmental factors including site elevation and substrate nitrate level and particle size. Although perennial-flow and intermittent-flow sites support different streamside plant communities, all of the plant functional groups are abundant at perennial-flow sites when viewing the ecosystem at broader spatial and temporal scales: mesic riparian perennials are common in the floodplain zone adjacent to the river channel and late-summer hydric and mesic annuals are periodically abundant after large floods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)925-938
Number of pages14
JournalRiver Research and Applications
Issue number8
StatePublished - Oct 1 2005


  • Cynodon dactylon
  • Ground water
  • Herbaceous vegetation
  • Instream flow
  • Intermittent stream
  • Introduced species
  • Riparian
  • Riverine marsh
  • Semiarid
  • Temporary stream

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Environmental Science(all)


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