Flow recommendations for maintaining riparian vegetation along the Upper Missouri River, Montana

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Montana Power Company, Inc. (MPC) submitted a final license application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on November 30, 1992. In this application, MPC proposed a plan for the protection of fish, wildlife, habitat, and water-quality resources. One concern was maintenance of woody riparian vegetation along the Missouri River, especially along the Wild and Scenic reach of the river, where the riparian forest occurs in relatively small discontinuous stands. The objectives of this project were 1) to recommend flows that would protect and enhance riparian forests along the Missouri River, and 2) to develop elements of an environmental monitoring program that could be used to assess the effectiveness of the recommended flows.

Plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides subsp. monilifera) is the key structural component of riparian forests along the Missouri River. Therefore, we focused our analysis on factors affecting populations of this species. Previous work had demonstrated that the age structure of cottonwood populations is strongly influenced by aspects of flow that promote successfully establishment. In this study our approach was to determine the precise age of plains cottonwood trees growing along the Upper Missouri River and to relate years of establishment to the flow record.

Our work was carried out between Coal Banks Landing and the Fred G. Robinson Bridge within the Wild and Scenic portion of the Missouri River. This segment of the river occupies a narrow valley and exhibits little channel migration. Maps and notes from the journals of Lewis and Clark (1804-1806) suggest that the present distribution and abundance of cottonwoods within the study reach is generally similar to presettlement conditions. Flows in the study reach are influenced by a number of dams and diversions, most importantly, Canyon Ferry and Tiber Dams. Although flow regulation has decreased peak flows and increased low flows, the gross seasonal pattern of flow has not been greatly altered.

Most cottonwood establishment in our study reach occurred in years with a peak mean daily flow greater than 1,400 m3/s (49,434 cfs), or in the two years following such a flow. These years include 35 out of the 111 years of record, and account for establishment of 47 of 60 trees examined, a highly significant relationship. Infrequent establishment of cottonwood trees is not the result of scarcity of seed or seedlings. In the study reach seedlings become established most years on bare, relatively low surfaces deposited by the river. However, the high elevation of establishment of all trees dating to before 1978 indicates that only individuals established on high flood deposits are able to survive subsequent floods and ice jams.

In order to maintain the present abundance of plains cottonwood in the study area we recommend flood flows in excess of 1,400 m3/s (49,434 cfs) measures as mean daily discharge at Fort Benton (U.S. Geological Survey gage 06090800) with a recurrence interval of approximately 9 years. Because cottonwood seeds remain viable for only a few weeks, and because seedling require a moist, bare surface, we further recommend maintenance of the historic timing of flooding with peak flood flows occurring between mid-May and late-June.

Flow is not the only factor influencing cottonwood regeneration along this reach of the Missouri River. Land management, especially cattle grazing, is clearly having an impact, and changes in cottonwood populations could be expected if these practices were altered. However, the dependence of cottonwood establishment on high flow is clear in this reach in spite of the effects of other factors.

Given the value of the resource, we strongly suggest establishment of a monitoring program to determine the effectiveness of the recommended flows and to provide the data necessary for refining them. We recommend a monitoring program that would include: 1) ten permanent, widely space channel cross sections for annual measurement of channel geometry and cottonwood establishment, growth, and survival; 2) five livestock enclosures to monitor the influence of grazing in the study area; and 3) low-elevation aerial photography of the reach every five years and after every flood to detect changes in channel geometry and forested area. Because cottonwood establishment is episodic, a long-term commitment to the monitoring effort is essential. In addition, cross sections and exclosures should be easy enough to access that measurements during flood years are possible.

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Report
Title Flow recommendations for maintaining riparian vegetation along the Upper Missouri River, Montana
Year Published 1993
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Fort Collins, CO
Description 36 p.
Country United States
State Montana
Other Geospatial Missouri River
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