In June 2006, an opportunistic high-flow release was made from Tiber Dam on the Marias River in Mont., to investigate possible alternatives for partially restoring the river's natural flow pattern and variability. At two sites along the river, we measured channel geometry before and after the high-flow release to evaluate channel change and alteration of physical habitat.
Streamflow downstream from Tiber Dam has been stabilized by reduction of high flows and augmentation of low flows. This has produced flood-control benefits as well as some possible adverse environmental effects downstream from the dam. The 2006 high-flow release resulted in a downstream hydrograph with high flows of above-average magnitude in the post-dam flow regime of the Marias River. Timing of the peak and the declining limb of the release hydrograph were very similar to a historical, unregulated hydrograph of the Marias River. Furthermore, the high flow produced many of the qualitative elements of ecologically important physical processes that can be diminished or lost due to flow stabilization downstream from a dam. Typically dry back channels were occupied by flowing water. Islands were inundated, resulting in vegetation removal and sediment accretion that produced new disturbance patches of bare, moist substrate. Cut banks were eroded, and large woody debris was added to the river and redistributed. Flood-plain surfaces were inundated, producing substantial increases in wetted perimeter and spatially distinctive patterns of deposition associated with natural levee formation.
The scale of the 2006 high flow - in terms of peak magnitude and the lateral extent of bottomland influenced by inundation or lateral channel movement - was roughly an order of magnitude smaller than the scale of an infrequent high flow in the pre-dam regime. Overall extent and composition of riparian vegetation will continue to change under a scaled-down, post-dam flow regime. For example, the importance of the non-native Russian-olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) will likely increase. Reestablishing a more natural pattern of flows, however, should promote the increase of native cottonwood and willow (Salix spp.) in the new-albeit smaller-post-dam riparian ecosystem. A more natural flow regime will also likely provide improved habitat for native fish in the Marias River. Response of fish communities to such flows is the subject of current fisheries studies being conducted in cooperation with Bureau of Reclamation.