, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 382-395
Date: 28 Jun 2005

Mechanisms of Riparian Cottonwood Decline Along Regulated Rivers

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Abstract

Decline of riparian forests has been attributed to hydrologic modifications to river flows. However, little is known about the physiological and structural adjustments of riparian forests subject to modified flow regimes, and the potential for forest restoration using historic flow regimes is poorly understood. In this paired river study, we compared hydrology, water relations, and forest structure in cottonwood-dominated floodplains of the regulated Green River to those of the unregulated Yampa River. We measured floodplain groundwater levels, soil water availability, cottonwood xylem pressure (Ψxp), and leaf-level stomatal conductance (g s) to assess current impacts of river regulation on the water status of adult cottonwoods. We also simulated a flood on the former floodplain of the regulated river to evaluate its impact on cottonwood water relations. Canopy and root structure were quantified with estimates of cottonwood leaf area and percent live canopy and root density and biomass, respectively. Regulation of the Green River has lowered the annual peak flow yet raised minimum flows in most years, resulting in a 60% smaller stage change, and lowered soil water availability by as much as 70% compared to predam conditions. Despite differences in water availability, daily and seasonal trends in Ψxp and g s were similar for cottonwoods on the regulated and unregulated rivers. In addition, soil water added with the experimental flood had little effect on cottonwood water relations, contrary to our expectations of alleviated water stress. Green River cottonwoods had 10%–30% lower stand leaf area, 40% lower root density, and 25% lower root biomass compared with those for Yampa River cottonwoods. Our results suggest that water relations at the leaf and stem level are currently similar for Yampa and Green River trees due to structural adjustments of cottonwood forests along the Green River, triggered by river regulation.