Effectiveness of environmental flows for riparian restoration in arid regions: A tale of four rivers

Ecological Engineering




Environmental flows have become important restoration tools on regulated rivers. However, environmental flows are often constrained by other demands within the river system and thus typically are comprised of smaller water volumes than the natural flows they are meant to replace, which can limit their functional efficacy. We review environmental flow programs aimed at restoring riparian vegetation on four arid zone rivers: the Tarim River in China; the Bill Williams River in Arizona, U.S.; the delta of the Colorado River in Mexico; and the Murrumbidgee River in southern Australia. Our goal is to determine what worked and what did not work to accomplish restoration goals. The lower Tarim River in China formerly formed a “green corridor” across the Taklamakan Desert. The riparian zone deteriorated due to diversion of surface and groundwater for irrigated agriculture. A massive restoration program began in 2000 with release of 1038 million cubic meters of water over the first three years. Groundwater levels rose but the ecological response was less than expected politically, socially and within the scientific community. However, releases continued and by 2015 portions of the original iconic Populus euphratica (Euphrates poplar) forest were reestablished. The natural flow regime of the Bill Williams River was disrupted by construction of a dam in 1968, dramatically reducing peak flows along with associated fluvial processes. As a result, the channel narrowed and riparian vegetation expanded and was comprised largely of an introduced shrub species (Tamarix spp.). Environmental flow releases including small, managed floods and sustained base flows have been implemented since the mid 1990’s to promote establishment and maintenance of native riparian trees (cottonwoods and willows) and have been successful, although in a “downsized” portion of the valley bottom. Experience from the Bill Williams was used to help design the Minute 319 environmental flow in the delta of the Colorado River in 2014. Water was released as a short, one-time pulse during spring with the intent of starting new cohorts of cottonwood and willow. However, fluvial disturbance was limited by the relatively small magnitude pulse, low flows did not continue throughout the growing season in some reaches, native tree recruitment was low, and most of the new plants recruited were Tamarix. The inundated portion of the floodplain did respond with a temporary increase in greenness as measured by satellite vegetation indices, however. The Murrumbidgee River in Australia is a tributary in the Murray-Darling River Basin, which supports iconic red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) forests that depend on near-yearly floods for maintenance. During the recent Millennial Drought (2000–2010) environmental flows were provided on an experimental basis to small portions of the Yanga National Forest to see how much water was needed. As with the Colorado River delta, gains in vegetation vigor as measured by satellite vegetation indices following the flows were temporary. Environmental flows in the Bill Williams were able to restore enough overbank flooding and fluvial disturbance to promote some establishment of new cohorts of trees, but on the Colorado and Murrumbidgee Rivers larger volumes of total flows released over longer periods and targeted restoration will be needed to restore the ecosystems. A measure of success in restoring the Euphrates poplar forest on the Tarim and germinating new chorts of willows on the Bill Williams has been achieved after 15–20 years of environmental flows, but the Colorado River delta and Murrumbidgee Rivers have only received one or two flows. Success in enhancing native trees in the Colorado delta has been achieved in restoration plots, but the Murrumbidgee will require large overbank flows on a continuing schedule to rejuvenate the red gum forest.

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Journal Article
Effectiveness of environmental flows for riparian restoration in arid regions: A tale of four rivers
Series title:
Ecological Engineering
Part B
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Contributing office(s):
Southwest Biological Science Center
9 p.
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