We evaluated the roles of geomorphic and hydrologic dynamics in determining physical stream habitat in Bear Creek, a stream with a 239 km2 drainage basin in the Ozark Plateaus (Ozarks) in northern Arkansas. During a relatively wet 12-month monitoring period, the geomorphology of Bear Creek was altered by a series of floods, including at least four floods with peak discharges exceeding a 1-year recurrence interval and another flood with an estimated 2- to 4-year recurrence interval. These floods resulted in a net erosion of sediment from the study reach at Crane Bottom at rates far in excess of other sites previously studied in the Ozarks. The riffle-pool framework of the study reach at Crane Bottom was not substantially altered by these floods, but volumes of habitat in riffles and pools changed. The 2- to 4-year flood scoured gravel from pools and deposited it in riffles, increasing the diversity of available stream habitat. In contract, the smaller floods eroded gravel from the riffles and deposited it in pools, possibly flushing fine sediment from the substrate but also decreasing habitat diversity.
Channel geometry measured at the beginning of the study was use to develop a two-dimensional, finite-element hydraulic model at assess how habitat varies with hydrologic dynamics. Distributions of depth and velocity simulated over the range of discharges observed during the study (0.1 to 556 cubic meters per second, cms) were classified into habitat units based on limiting depths and Froude number criteria. The results indicate that the areas of habitats are especially sensitive to change to low to medium flows. Races (areas of swift, relatively deep water downstream from riffles) disappear completely at the lowest flows, and riffles (areas of swift, relatively shallow water) contract substantially in area. Pools also contract in area during low flow, but deep scours associated with bedrock outcrops sustain some pool area even at the lowest modeled flows. Modeled boundary shear stresses were used to evaluate which flows are responsible for the most mobilization of the bed, and therefore, habitat maintenance. Evaluation of the magnitude and frequency of bed-sediment entrainment shows that most of the habitat maintenance results from flows that occur on average about 4 to 7 days a year.
Our analysis documents the geomorphic and hydrologic dynamics that form and maintain habitats in a warmwater stream in the Ozarks. The range of flows that occurs on this stream can be partitioned into those that sustain habitat by providing the combinations of depth and velocity that stream organisms live with most of the time, and those flows that surpass sediment entrainment thresholds, alter stream geomorphology, and therefore maintain habitat. The quantitative relations show sensitivity of habitats to flow variation, but do not address how flow may vary in the future, or the extent to which stream geomorphology may be affected by variations in sediment supply.