The effects of river regulation on bottomland tree communities in western North America have generated substantial concern because of the important habitat and aesthetic values of these communities. Consideration of such effects in water management decisions has been hampered by the apparent variability of responses of bottomland tree communities to flow alteration. When the relation between streamflow and tree establishment is placed in a geomorphic context, however, much of that variability is explained, and prediction of changes in the tree community is improved.
The relation between streamflow and establishment of bottomland trees is conditioned by the dominant fluvial process or processes acting along a stream. For successful establishment, cottonwoods, poplars, and willows require bare, moist surfaces protected from disturbance. Channel narrowing, channel meandering, and flood deposition promote different spatial and temporal patterns of establishment. During channel narrowing, the site requirements are met on portions of the bed abandoned by the stream, and establishment is associated with a period of low flow lasting one to several years. During channel meandering, the requirements are met on point bars following moderate or higher peak flows. Following flood deposition, the requirements are met on flood deposits ;high above the channel bed. Flood deposition can occur along most streams, but where a channel is constrained by a narrow valley, this process may be the only mechanism that can produce a bare, moist surface high enough to be safe from future disturbance. Because of differences in local bedrock, tributary influence, or geologic history, two nearby reaches of the same stream may be dominated by different fluvial processes and have different spatial and temporal patterns of trees. We illustrate this phenomenon with examples from forests of plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides ssp. monilifera) along meandering and constrained reaches of the Missouri River in Montana.