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U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2010-1022

Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center

Riparian Vegetation Response to the March 2008 Short-Duration, High-Flow Experiment—Implications of Timing and Frequency of Flood Disturbance on Nonnative Plant Establishment Along the Colorado River Below Glen Canyon Dam

By Barbara E. Ralston


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Riparian plant communities exhibit various levels of diversity and richness. These communities are affected by flooding and are vulnerable to colonization by nonnative species. Since 1996, a series of three high-flow experiments (HFE), or water releases designed to mimic natural seasonal flooding, have been conducted at Glen Canyon Dam, Ariz., primarily to determine the effectiveness of using high flows to conserve sediment, a limited resource. These experiments also provide opportunities to examine the susceptibility of riparian plant communities to nonnative species invasions. The third and most recent HFE was conducted from March 5 to 9, 2008, and scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center examined the effects of high flows on riparian vegetation as part of the overall experiment. Total plant species richness, nonnative species richness, percent plant cover, percent organic matter, and total carbon measured from sediment samples were compared for Grand Canyon riparian vegetation zones immediately following the HFE and 6 months later. These comparisons were used to determine if susceptibility to nonnative species establishment varied among riparian vegetation zones and if the timing of the HFE affected nonnative plant establishment success. The 2008 HFE primarily buried vegetation rather than scouring it. Percent nonnative cover did not differ among riparian vegetation zones; however, in the river corridor affected by Glen Canyon Dam operations, nonnative species richness showed significant variation. For example, species richness was significantly greater immediately after and 6 months following the HFE in the hydrologic zone farthest away from the shoreline, the area that represents the oldest riparian zone within the post-dam riparian area. In areas closer to the river channel, tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima X chinensis) seedling establishment occurred (<2 percent cover) in 2008 but not to the extent reported in either 2000, a year when experimental summer flows coincided with tamarisk seed production, or in 1986, a year following several years of sustained flooding. The results from the 2008 HFE suggest that riparian vegetation zones subject to intermittent disturbance and near the river under normal dam operations are more susceptible to nonnative species introductions following a disturbance. This study also finds that the timing of an HFE affects the types of species that can become established. For example, HFEs conducted in March are associated with reduced tamarisk seedling establishment compared to disturbances later in the season. Additionally, early season, short-duration flooding that results in vegetation burial may favor clonal species. Along the Colorado River many of these clonal species are native; these species include arrowweed (Pluchea sericea), coyote willow (Salix exigua), and rivercane (Phragmites australis).

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SBSC Staff, Southwest Biological Science Center
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Flagstaff, AZ 86001

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Suggested citation:

Ralston, Barbara E., 2010, Riparian vegetation response to the March 2008 short-duration, high-flow experiment; implications of timing and frequency of flood disturbance on nonnative plant establishment along the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2010-1022, 30 p.





Methods and Analysis




References Cited

Appendix—List of species encountered in April and September 2008

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