The riparian corridor in the delta of the Colorado River in Mexico supports internationally important bird habitat. The vegetation is maintained by surface flows from the U.S. and Mexico and by a high, non-saline aquifer into which the dominant phreatophytic shrubs and trees are rooted. We studied the effects of a regional drought on riparian vegetation and avian abundance and diversity from 2002 to 2007, during which time surface flows were markedly reduced compared to the period from 1995 to 2002. Reduced surface flows led to a reduction in native tree cover but an increase in shrub cover, mostly due to an increase in Tamarix spp., an introduced halophytic shrub, and a reduction in Populus fremontii and Salix gooddingii trees. However, overall vegetation cover was unchanged at about 70%. Overall bird density and diversity were also unchanged, but riparian-obligate species tended to decrease in abundance, and generalist species increased. Although reduction in surface flows reduced habitat value and negatively impacted riparian-obligate bird species, portions of the riparian zone exhibited resilience. Surface flows are required to reduce soil salt levels and germinate new cohorts of native trees, but the main source of water supporting this ecosystem is the aquifer, derived from underflows from irrigated fields in the U.S. and Mexico. The long-term prospects for delta riparian habitats are uncertain due to expected reduced flows of river water from climate change, and land use practices that will reduce underflows to the riparian aquifer and increase salinity levels. Active restoration programs would be needed if these habitats are to be preserved for the future.
Additional publication details
Effects of drought on birds and riparian vegetation in the Colorado River Delta, Mexico