Ground-water and surface flow depletions are altering riparian ecosystems throughout the southwestern United States, and have contributed to the decline of forests of the pioneer trees Populus fremontii (Fremont cottonwood) and Salix gooddingii (Goodding willow). On some rivers, these forests have been replaced by shrublands of Tamarix ramosissima (tamarisk), a drought-tolerant species from Eurasia. The physiological response of these three riparian plant species to decreases in water availability is well studied, but little attention has been given to shifts in community and population structure in response to declines in surface flow and ground-water levels. Based on study of 17 sites spanning a hydrologic gradient, this research identified hydrologic thresholds above which P. fremontii-S. gooddingii maintain tall dense stands with diverse age classes, and above which they are more abundant than T. ramosissima stands along the San Pedro River in Arizona. Surface flow permanence was the hydrologic variable that explained most of the variance in species abundance and relative importance, with inter-annual ground-water fluctuation and depth to ground water also contributing. P. fremontii and S. gooddingii were dominant over T. ramosissima at sites where surface flow was present more than 76% of the time, inter-annual ground-water fluctuation was less than 0.5 m, and average maximum depth to ground water was less than 2.6 m, during a two-year period of data collection. Because T. ramosissima is a shrub species with smaller leaves and lower canopy heights than P. fremontii and S. gooddingii, these shifts in species composition corresponded to decreases in maximum canopy height and upper stratum (above 8 m) vegetation volume as site water availability declined. As well, sites with deeper water tables and more intermittent flows had greater areal coverage of shrublands and less of woodlands. The altered vegetation structure along dewatered rivers may lower wildlife habitat quality. This study provides river managers with quantitative hydrologic guidelines for conserving tall dense P. fremontii-S. gooddingii stands and emphasizes the importance of maintaining long-term hydrologic conditions that are favorable to these species. The study also has implications for riparian restoration and invasive species management by suggesting that desired outcomes may be achieved through restoration of physical processes.
- Ground-water thresholds
- Invasive species
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Nature and Landscape Conservation