The 4-year drawdown of Horsetooth Reservoir, Colorado, for dam maintenance, provides a case study analog of vegetation response on sediment that might be exposed from removal of a tall dam. Early vegetation recovery on the exposed reservoir bottom was a combination of (1) vegetation colonization on bare, moist substrates typical of riparian zones and reservoir sediment of shallow dams and (2) a shift in moisture status from mesic to the xeric conditions associated with the pre-impoundment upland position of most of the drawdown zone. Plant communities changed rapidly during the first four years of exposure, but were still substantially different from the background upland plant community. Predictions from the recruitment box model about the locations of Populus deltoides subsp. monilifera (plains cottonwood) seedlings relative to the water surface were qualitatively confirmed with respect to optimum locations. However, the extreme vertical range of water surface elevations produced cottonwood seed regeneration well outside the predicted limits of drawdown rate and height above late summer stage. The establishment and survival of cottonwood at high elevations and the differences between the upland plant community and the community that had developed after four years of exposure suggest that vegetation recovery following tall dam removal will follow a trajectory very different from a simple reversal of the response to dam construction, involving not only long time scales of establishment and growth of upland vegetation, but also possibly decades of persistence of legacy vegetation established during the reservoir to upland transition. ?? 2007 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.