Extreme floods, channel change, and riparian forests along ephemeral streams

Ecological Monographs
By:  and 



The geomorphic effectiveness of extreme floods increases with aridity and decreasing watershed size. Therefore, in small dry watersheds extreme floods should control the age structure and spatial distribution of populations of disturbance-dependent riparian trees. We examined the influence of extreme floods on the bottomland morphology and forest of ephemeral streams in a semiarid region. Along six stream reaches on the Colorado Piedmont we examined channel changes by analyzing a rectified sequence of aerial photographs spanning 56 yr, and we investigated the spatial distribution of different-aged patches of forest by aging 189 randomly sampled cottonwood trees. Channel change in these ephemeral sand-bed streams is dominated by widening, which occurs over a span of hours during infrequent floods, and postflood narrowing, which occurs over decades between floods. Narrowing is accelerated where reliable moisture increases the density and growth rate of vegetation on the former bed. Reproduction of cottonwood trees has occurred mostly in former channel bed during periods of channel narrowing beginning after floods in 1935 and 1965 and continuing for as long as two decades. Thus cottonwood establishment is related to low flows at the time scale of a year, but to high flows at the time scale of decades. At sites that have not experienced major floods in the last 80 yr, little channel change has occurred, cottonwood reproduction has been limited, tree density has declined, and succession to grassland is occurring. Because channel change and tree reproduction in this region are driven by infrequent local events, channel width and tree age distributions vary greatly over time and among sites. For the same reason, riparian forests along these ephemeral streams can be as wide as forests along perennial rivers with much higher mean discharge.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Extreme floods, channel change, and riparian forests along ephemeral streams
Series title Ecological Monographs
DOI 10.1890/0012-9615(2002)072[0409:EFCCAR]2.0.CO;2
Volume 72
Issue 3
Year Published 2002
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description 17 p.
First page 409
Last page 425
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