Establishment, growth, and survival of seedlings of Populus deltoides subsp. monilifera (plains cottonwood) were examined in an experimental facility simulating five rates of declining alluvial groundwater. The treatments were permanent saturation, drawdown rates of 0.4, 0.7, 2.9 cm/d and immediate drainage. The experiment was conducted outdoors in planters near Fort Collins, Colorado. Seedling survival was highest under the two slowest drawdown rates and declined significantly with faster drawdown rates. The highest growth rate was associated with the drawdown rate of 0.4 cm/d, in which mean shoot height was 2.4 cm and mean root length was 39 am 98 days after planting. Growth of shoots and roots was reduced both by saturated conditions and by the more rapid drawdown rates of 0.7 and 2.9 cm/d. No establishment was observed in the immediate drawdown treatment. Whereas maximum biomass accumulation is associated with the most gradual drawdown or saturated conditions, seedling establishing naturally under such conditions are also most likely to be removed by ice or subsequent flooding. Seedlings establishing in higher topographic positions, in contrast, are subject to increased mortality and reduced shoot growth, resulting from reduced soil moisture. Rapid root extension following establishment allows P. deltoides seedlings to grow across a wide range of groundwater drawdown rates, and thus a variety of positions across a gradient of riparian soil moisture. Our results indicate that in coarse alluvial sands of low fertility, 47% of germinating P. deltoides seeds were able to survive in associated with a drawdown rate of 2.9 cm/d and a final water table depth of 80 cm.