, Volume 115, Issue 1-3, pp 145-173
Date: 28 Apr 2006

Status of the Riparian Ecosystem in the Upper San Pedro River, Arizona: Application of an Assessment Model

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Abstract

A portion of Arizona’s San Pedro River is managed as a National Riparian Conservation Area but is potentially affected by ground-water withdrawals beyond the conservation area borders. We applied an assessment model to the Conservation Area as a basis for monitoring long-term changes in riparian ecosystem condition resulting from changes in river water availability, and collected multi-year data on a subset of the most sensitive bioindicators. The assessment model is based on nine vegetation bioindicators that are sensitive to changes in surface water or ground water. Site index scores allow for placement into one of three condition classes, each reflecting particular ranges for site hydrology and vegetation structure. We collected the bioindicator data at 26 sites distributed among 14 reaches that had similar stream flow hydrology (spatial flow intermittency) and geomorphology (channel sinuosity, flood-plain width). Overall, 39% of the riparian corridor fell within condition class 3 (the wettest condition), 55% in condition class 2, and 6% in the driest condition class. Condition class 3 reaches have high cover of herbaceous wetland plants (e.g., Juncus and Schoenoplectus spp.) along the perennial stream channel and dense, multi-aged Populus-Salix woodlands in the flood plain, sustained by shallow ground water in the stream alluvium. In condition class 2, intermittent stream flows result in low cover of streamside wetland herbs, but Populus-Salix remain abundant in the flood plain. Perennial wetland plants are absent from condition class 1, reflecting highly intermittent stream flows; the flood plain is vegetated by Tamarixa small tree that tolerates the deep and fluctuating ground water levels that typify this reach type. Abundance of herbaceous wetland plants and growth rate of Salix gooddingii varied between years with different stream flow rates, indicating utility of these measures for tracking short-term responses to hydrologic change. Repeat measurement of all bioindicators will indicate long-term trends in hydro-vegetational condition.