Environmental Management

, Volume 60, Issue 6, pp 1101–1115 | Cite as

Long-term Water Table Monitoring of Rio Grande Riparian Ecosystems for Restoration Potential Amid Hydroclimatic Challenges

  • James R. Thibault
  • James R. Cleverly
  • Clifford N. Dahm


Hydrological processes drive the ecological functioning and sustainability of cottonwood-dominated riparian ecosystems in the arid southwestern USA. Snowmelt runoff elevates groundwater levels and inundates floodplains, which promotes cottonwood germination. Once established, these phreatophytes rely on accessible water tables (WTs). In New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande corridor diminished flooding and deepening WTs threaten native riparian communities. We monitored surface flows and riparian WTs for up to 14 years, which revealed that WTs and surface flows, including peak snowmelt discharge, respond to basin climate conditions and resource management. WT hydrographs influence the composition of riparian communities and can be used to assess if potential restoration sites meet native vegetation tolerances for WT depths, rates of recession, and variability throughout their life stages. WTs were highly variable in some sites, which can preclude native vegetation less adapted to deep drawdowns during extended droughts. Rates of WT recession varied between sites and should be assessed in regard to recruitment potential. Locations with relatively shallow WTs and limited variability are likely to be more viable for successful restoration. Suitable sites have diminished greatly as the once meandering Rio Grande has been constrained and depleted. Increasing demands on water and the presence of invasive vegetation better adapted to the altered hydrologic regime further impact native riparian communities. Long-term monitoring over a range of sites and hydroclimatic extremes reveals attributes that can be evaluated for restoration potential.


Groundwater Surface flow Flood Drought Cottonwood Salt cedar 



The authors wish to thank the UNM Hydrogeoecology Group, in particular Julie Coonrod, Diane McDonnell, Jennifer Schuetz, Manuel Molles, Jr., John Craig, Stephen Teet, and David Gilroy for their assistance and insights over many years. The authors also thank the following agencies for granting access to the research sites: Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, City of Albuquerque Open Space Division, the New Mexico State Land Office, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, and New Mexico State Game and Fish. The authors also extend thanks to Salim Bawazir and New Mexico State University and to the Sevilleta Long Term Ecological Research program. Funding was provided by NASA Award NAG5-6999, the US Fish and Wildlife Bosque Initiative, the US Bureau of Reclamation Endangered Species Act research grant, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, a National Science Foundation EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement Award, and NSF DEB#0080529/DEB#0217774 to the Sevilleta LTER program. Finally, we thank two anonymous reviewers for improving this paper with their constructive, insightful inputs.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  2. 2.Terrestrial Ecohydrology Research Group, School of Life Sciences, University of Technology SydneyBroadwayAustralia
  3. 3.Delta Stewardship CouncilSacramentoUSA

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