, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 687-696

First online:

Water relations of riparian plants from warm desert regions

  • Stanley D. SmithAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  • , Dale A. DevittAffiliated withEnvironmental and Resource Sciences/199, University of Nevada RenoDepartment of Biological Sciences, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  • , Anna SalaAffiliated withDivision of Biological Sciences, University of Montana
  • , James R. CleverlyAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  • , David E. BuschAffiliated withForest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, U.S.G.S.-Biological Resources Division

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Riparian plants have been classified as “drought avoiders” due to their access to an abundant subsurface water supply. Recent water-relations research that tracks water sources of riparian plants using the stable isotopes of water suggests that many plants of the riparian zone use ground water rather than stream water, and not all riparian plants are obligate phreatophytes (dependent on ground water as a moisture source) but may occasionally be dependent on unsaturated soil moisture sources. A more thorough understanding of riparian plant-water relations must include water-source dynamics and how those dynamics vary over both space and time. Many rivers in the desert, Southwest have been invaded by the exotic shrubTamarix ramosissima (saltcedar). Our studies ofTamarix invasion into habitats formerly dominated by native riparian forests of primarilyPopulus andSalix have shown thatTamarix successfully invades these habitats because of its (1) greater tolerance to water stress and salinity, (2) status, as a facultative, rather than obligate, phreatophyte and, therefore, its ability to recover from droughts and periods of ground-water drawdown, and (3) superior regrowth after fire. Analysis of water-loss rates indicate thatTamarix-dominated stands can have extremely high evapotranspiration rates when water tables are high but not necessarily when water tables are lower.Tamarix has leaf-level transpiration rates that are comparable to native species, whereas sap-flow rates per unit sapwood area are higher than in natives, suggesting thatTamarix maintains higher leaf area than can natives, probably due to its greater water stress tolerance.Tamarix desiccates and salinizes floodplains, due to its salt exudation and high transpiration rates, and may also accelerate fire cycles, thus predisposing these ecosystems to further loss of native taxa. Riparian species on regulated rivers can be exposed to seasonal water stress due to depression of floodplain water tables and elimination of annual floods. This can potentially result in a community shift toward more stress-tolerant taxa, such asTamarix, due to the inability of other riparian species to germinate and establish in the desiccated floodplain environment Management efforts aimed at maintaining native forests on regulated rivers and slowing the spread ofTamarix invasion must include at least partial reintroduction of historical flow, regimes, which favor the recruitment of native riparian species and reverse long-term desiccation of desert floodplain environments.

Key Words

riparian phreatophyte ground water plant water relations water stress transpiration sap flow stable isotopes Tamarix Populus Salix Prosopis