The response of rivers and riparian forests to upstream dams shows a regional pattern related to physiographic and climatic factors that influence channel geometry. We carried out a spatial analysis of the response of channel geometry to 35 dams in the Great Plains and Central Lowlands, USA. The principal response of a braided channel to an upstream dam is channel-narrowing, and the principal response of a meandering channel is a reduction in channel migration rate. Prior to water management, braided channels were most common in the southwestern Plains where sand is abundant, whereas meandering channels were most common in the northern and eastern Plains. The dominant response to upstream dams has been channel-narrowing in the southwestern Plains (e.g., six of nine cases in the High Plains) and reduction in migration rate in the north and east (e.g., all of twelve cases in the Missouri Plateau and Western Lake Regions). Channel-narrowing is associated with a burst of establishment of native and exotic woody riparian pioneer species on the former channel bed. In contrast, reduction in channel migration rate is associated with a decrease in reproduction of woody riparian pioneers. Thus, riparian pioneer forests along large rivers in the southwestern Plains have temporarily increased following dam construction while such forests in the north and east have decreased. These patterns explain apparent contradictions in conclusions of studies that focused on single rivers or small regions and provide a framework for predicting effects of dams on large rivers in the Great Plains and elsewhere. These conclusions are valid only for large rivers. A spatial analysis of channel width along 286 streams ranging in mean annual discharge from 0.004 to 1370 cubic meters per second did not produce the same clear regional pattern, in part because the channel geometries of small and large streams are affected differently by a sandy watershed.
Additional publication details
Downstream effects of dams on channel geometry and bottomland vegetation: Regional patterns in the Great Plains