Riverine riparian vegetation has changed throughout the southwestern United States, prompting concern about losses of habitat and biodiversity. Woody riparian vegetation grows in a variety of geomorphic settings ranging from bedrock-lined channels to perennial streams crossing deep alluvium and is dependent on interaction between ground-water and surface-water resources. Historically, few reaches in Arizona, southern Utah, or eastern California below 1530 m elevation had closed gallery forests of cottonwood and willow; instead, many alluvial reaches that now support riparian gallery forests once had marshy grasslands and most bedrock canyons were essentially barren. Repeat photography using more than 3000 historical images of rivers indicates that riparian vegetation has increased over much of the region. These increases appear to be related to several factors, notably the reduction in beaver populations by trappers in the 19th century, downcutting of arroyos that drained alluvial aquifers between 1880 and 1910, the frequent recurrence of winter floods during discrete periods of the 20th century, an increased growing season, and stable ground-water levels. Reductions in riparian vegetation result from agricultural clearing, excessive ground-water use, complete flow diversion, and impoundment of reservoirs. Elimination of riparian vegetation occurs either where high ground-water use lowers the water table below the rooting depth of riparian species, where base flow is completely diverted, or both. We illustrate regional changes using case histories of the San Pedro and Santa Cruz Rivers, which are adjacent watersheds in southern Arizona with long histories of water development and different trajectories of change in riparian vegetation.
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Ground-water surface-water interactions and long-term change in riverine riparian vegetation in the southwestern United States