Effects of flow diversion on Snake Creek and its riparian cottonwood forest, Great Basin National Park

Natural Resource Report NPS/GRBA/NRR-2020/2104
By: , and 



Snake Creek flows east from the southern Snake Range in Nevada over complex lithology before leaving Great Basin National Park. The river travels over a section of karst limestone where some surface water naturally recharges the groundwater flow system. In 1961 a water diversion pipeline was constructed by downstream water users to transport surface water through the groundwater recharge zone to reduce potential water losses. The diversion pipeline dewaters a 5-km reach for most of the year by transporting water past the recharge zone then returning it to the channel downstream. Snake Creek was incorporated into the newly established Great Basin National Park in 1986, and today park managers and visitors are concerned that the diversion has destabilized Snake Creek’s riparian ecosystem in this arid region where it has high ecological value. The objectives of this study were to 1) document riparian cottonwood forest conditions in the pipeline-dewatered (DW) reach, 2) evaluate Snake Creek water availability and whether it can support a healthy riparian ecosystem, and 3) determine if dewatering has shifted the fluvial system into an unnatural and poorly functioning state.

We pursued these ecohydrological study objectives in 11 research investigations of Snake Creek’s DW reach and nearby reference reaches. The research investigations analyzed: 1) riparian forest condition, tree age, growth, and death; 2) tree ring chronologies through time and space; 3) hydroclimatic drivers of tree growth; 4) stable carbon isotopes extracted from tree rings; 5) cottonwood ecophysiology related to water transport and water stress; 6) historical aerial photography; 7) stand-level riparian forest production; 8) groundwater availability as related to surface water and plant rooting zones; 9) near-surface geophysics using electrical resistivity imaging; 10) channel and valley geomorphology; and 11) in-channel wood jams caused by fallen trees. Integrating these diverse research topics provided a full perspective of historical and modern conditions along Snake Creek.

We found that modern hydrological conditions in Snake Creek’s DW reach could not maintain the drought-sensitive ecosystem. The riparian cottonwoods (Populus angustifolia and P. angustifolia x P. trichocarpa) have experienced significant dieback. Tree mortality was 2.4 times higher in the DW reach than in reference reaches, and surviving trees supported only 60% of the live canopy compared to trees in reference reaches. Changes in the DW reach forest began in the 1960s and became more severe during the last two decades. Stable carbon isotope ratios and branch dieback analyses both demonstrated initial forest adjustments related to water stress beginning in the early 1960s. Tree ring width chronologies indicated two periods of growth decline in the DW relative to control reaches. The first decline in the 1960s represented an immediate adjustment to the modified flow regime, and the second decline in the 2000s demonstrated reduced resilience to atmospheric drought. Aerial photos and stand-level forest production calculations indicated that substantial riparian forest decline occurred in the 1990s–2010s in the DW reach compared to reference reaches. Stable carbon isotope ratios and leaf water potentials revealed that trees in the DW reach experienced greater drought stress than those in reference reaches. Monitoring wells and electrical resistivity surveys both showed riparian water tables to be largely supported by in-channel surface water flow, indicating that the flow diversion removed water that recharges alluvial groundwater and sustains riparian plants. Areas of widespread tree mortality in the DW reach also corresponded to a larger and more unstable channel with a high instream wood load from fallen trees. Modern conditions of Snake Creek in the DW reach robustly suggest that dewatering the river and its associated riparian corridor adversely affected the riparian ecosystem. The degraded condition is likely to persist and intensify unless water is returned to the channel. As we documented during the wet 1980s and the scientific literature suggest, a partial recovery of the riparian ecosystem is likely possible with restored flows.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Title Effects of flow diversion on Snake Creek and its riparian cottonwood forest, Great Basin National Park
Series title Natural Resource Report
Series number NPS/GRBA/NRR-2020/2104
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher National Park Service
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description xv, 159 p.
Country United States
State Nevada
Other Geospatial Great Basin National Park
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details