Effects of dams and geomorphic context on riparian forests of the Elwha River, Washington

By: , and 



Understanding how dams affect the shifting habitat mosaic of river bottomlands is key for protecting the many ecological functions and related goods and services that riparian forests provide and for informing approaches to riparian ecosystem restoration. We examined the downstream effects of two large dams on patterns of forest composition, structure, and dynamics within different geomorphic contexts and compared them to upstream reference conditions along the Elwha River, Washington, USA. Patterns of riparian vegetation in river segments downstream of the dams were driven largely by channel and bottomland geomorphic responses to a dramatically reduced sediment supply. The river segment upstream of both dams was the most geomorphically dynamic, whereas the segment between the dams was the least dynamic due to substantial channel armoring, and the segment downstream of both dams was intermediate due to some local sediment supply. These geomorphic differences were linked to altered characteristics of the shifting habitat mosaic, including older forest age structure and fewer young Populus balsamifera subsp. trichocarpa stands in the relatively static segment between the dams compared to more extensive early-successional forests (dominated by Alnus rubra and Salix spp.) and pioneer seedling recruitment upstream of the dams. Species composition of later-successional forest communities varied among river segments as well, with greater Pseudotsuga menziesii and Tsuga heterophylla abundance upstream of both dams, Acer spp. abundance between the dams, and P. balsamifera subsp. trichocarpa and Thuja plicata abundance below both dams. Riparian forest responses to the recent removal of the two dams on the Elwha River will depend largely on channel and geomorphic adjustments to the release, transport, and deposition of the large volume of sediment formerly stored in the reservoirs, together with changes in large wood dynamics.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Effects of dams and geomorphic context on riparian forests of the Elwha River, Washington
Series title Ecosphere
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.1621
Volume 7
Issue 12
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description e01621; 24 p.
Country United States
State Washington
Other Geospatial Elwha River
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