Environmental Management

, Volume 14, Issue 5, pp 699–709

Disturbance and recovery of large floodplain rivers


  • Richard E. Sparks
    • Stephen A. Forbes Biological StationIllinois Natural History Survey
  • Peter B. Bayley
    • Center for Aquatic EcologyIllinois Natural History Survey
  • Steven L. Kohler
    • Center for Aquatic EcologyIllinois Natural History Survey
  • Lewis L. Osborne
    • Center for Aquatic EcologyIllinois Natural History Survey
Section 4: Ecosystem And Landscape Constraints On Lotic Community Recovery

DOI: 10.1007/BF02394719

Cite this article as:
Sparks, R.E., Bayley, P.B., Kohler, S.L. et al. Environmental Management (1990) 14: 699. doi:10.1007/BF02394719


Disturbance in a river-floodplain system is defined as an unpredictable event that disrupts structure or function at the ecosystem, community, or population level. Disturbance can result in species replacements or losses, or shifts of ecosystems from one persistent condition to another. A disturbance can be a discrete event or a graded change in a controlling factor that eventually exceeds a critical threshold.

The annual flood is the major driving variable that facilitates lateral exchanges of nutrients, organic matter, and organisms. The annual flood is not normally considered a disturbance unless its timing or magnitude is “atypical.” The record flood of 1973 had little effect on the biota at a long-term study site on the Mississippi River, but the absence of a flood during the 1976–1977 Midwestern drought caused short- and long-term changes. Body burdens of contaminants increased temporarily in key species, because of increased concentration resulting from reduced dilution. Reduced runoff and sediment input improved light penetration and increased the depth at which aquatic macrophytes could grow. Developing plant beds exerted a high degree of biotic control and were able to persist, despite the resumption of normal floods and turbidity in subsequent years.

In contrast to the discrete event that disturbed the Mississippi River, a major confluent, the Illinois River, has been degraded by a gradual increase in sediment input and sediment resuspension. From 1958 to 1961 formerly productive backwaters and lakes along a 320-km reach of the Illinois River changed from clear, vegetated areas to turbid, barren basins. The change to a system largely controlled by abiotic factors was rapid and the degraded condition persists.

Traditional approaches to experimental design are poorly suited for detecting control mechanisms and for determining the critical thresholds in large river-floodplains. Large river-floodplain systems cannot be manipulated or sampled as easily as small streams, and greater use should be made of man-made or natural disturbances and environmental restoration as opportunistic experiments to measure thresholds and monitor the recovery process.

Key words

DisturbanceRecoveryRiverEcosystemMississippi RiverIllinois River
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© Springer-Verlag New York Inc. 1990