Importance of low-flow and high-flow characteristics to restoration of riparian vegetation along rivers in arid south-western United States

Juliet Stromberg, V. B. Beauchamp, M. D. Dixon, S. J. Lite, C. Paradzick

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

272 Scopus citations


Riparian vegetation in dry regions is influenced by low-flow and high-flow components of the surface and groundwater flow regimes. The duration of no-flow periods in the surface stream controls vegetation structure along the low-flow channel, while depth, magnitude and rate of groundwater decline influence phreatophytic vegetation in the floodplain. Flood flows influence vegetation along channels and floodplains by increasing water availability and by creating ecosystem disturbance. On reference rivers in Arizona's Sonoran Desert region, the combination of perennial stream flows, shallow groundwater in the riparian (stream) aquifer, and frequent flooding results in high plant species diversity and landscape heterogeneity and an abundance of pioneer wetland plant species in the floodplain. Vegetation changes on hydrologically altered river reaches are varied, given the great extent of flow regime changes ranging from stream and aquifer dewatering on reaches affected by stream diversion and groundwater pumping to altered timing, frequency, and magnitude of flood flows on reaches downstream of flow-regulating dams. As stream flows become more intermittent, diversity and cover of herbaceous species along the low-flow channel decline. As groundwater deepens, diversity of riparian plant species (particularly perennial species) and landscape patches are reduced and species composition in the floodplain shifts from wetland pioneer trees (Populus, Salix) to more drought-tolerant shrub species including Tamarix (introduced) and Bebbia. On impounded rivers, changes in flood timing can simplify landscape patch structure and shift species composition from mixed forests composed of Populus and Salix, which have narrow regeneration windows, to the more reproductively opportunistic Tamarix. If flows are not diverted, suppression of flooding can result in increased density of riparian vegetation, leading in some cases to very high abundance of Tamarix patches. Coarsening of sediments in river reaches below dams, associated with sediment retention in reservoirs, contributes to reduced cover and richness of herbaceous vegetation by reducing water and nutrient-holding capacity of soils. These changes have implications for river restoration. They suggest that patch diversity, riparian plant species diversity, and abundance of flood-dependent wetland tree species such as Populus and Salix can be increased by restoring fluvial dynamics on flood-suppressed rivers and by increasing water availability in rivers subject to water diversion or withdrawal. On impounded rivers, restoration of plant species diversity also may hinge on restoration of sediment transport. Determining the causes of vegetation change is critical for determining riparian restoration strategies. Of the many riparian restoration efforts underway in south-western United States, some focus on re-establishing hydrogeomorphic processes by restoring appropriate flows of surface water, groundwater and sediment, while many others focus on manipulating vegetation structure by planting trees (e.g. Populus) or removing trees (e.g. Tamarix). The latter approaches, in and of themselves, may not yield desired restoration outcomes if the tree species are indicators, rather than prime causes, of underlying changes in the physical environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)651-679
Number of pages29
JournalFreshwater Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2007


  • Arid
  • Flood hydrograph
  • Gila River basin
  • Groundwater
  • Plant species richness
  • Populus
  • Restoration
  • Riparian vegetation
  • River floodplain
  • Salix
  • Tamarix

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science


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