Ground-cover vegetation was surveyed in wetland forests in the lower Suwannee River floodplain, Florida, in a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Suwannee River Water Management District from 1996 to 1999. Increased water use in the basin, supplied primarily from ground water, could reduce ground-water discharge to the river and flows in the lower Suwannee River. Many of the 282 ground-cover species found in wetland forests of the floodplain have distributions that are related to flow-dependent hydrologic characteristics of forest types, and their distributions would change if flows were reduced. Overall species diversity in the floodplain might decrease, and the composition of ground-cover vegetation in all forest types might change with flow reductions.
The study area included forests within the 10-year floodplain of the lower Suwannee River from its confluence with the Santa Fe River to the lower limit of forests near the Gulf of Mexico. The floodplain is divided into three reaches (riverine, upper tidal, and lower tidal) due to variations in hydrology, vegetation, and soils with proximity to the coast. The riverine (non-tidal) reach had the greatest number of total species (203) and species unique to that reach (81). Mitchella repens, Toxicodendron radicans, and Axonopus furcatus were the most frequently dominant species in riverine bottomland hardwoods. Free-floating aquatic species, such as Spirodela punctata and Lemna valdiviana, were the dominant species in the wettest riverine swamps. The upper tidal reach had the lowest number of total species (116), only two species unique to that reach, and the lowest density of ground cover (26 percent). Panicum commutatum and Crinum americanum were frequent dominant species in upper tidal forests. The lower tidal reach had the highest ground-cover density (43 percent) and the second highest number of total species (183) and number of species unique to that reach (55). Saururus cernuus and species of Carex were frequently dominant in lower tidal swamps. Lower tidal hammocks, the most elevated lower tidal forests, were dominated by Osmunda cinnamomea and Chasmanthium laxum.
Flow reductions in the lower Suwannee River could change the flow-dependent hydrologic characteristics of wetland forests. Decreases in inundation and saturation in riverine forests could result in a decrease in the number and extent of semi-permanently inundated ponds. As a result, several species of free-floating, aquatic plants that grow only in riverine floodplain ponds might decrease in abundance or disappear if flows were reduced. Decreases in inundation and saturation could also result in a shift to more upland species in all riverine forests and upper tidal bottomland hardwoods. Upland species and some exotic species might increase in abundance in the floodplain, invading forests where hydrologic conditions have been altered by flow reductions. Depth and duration of inundation due to river flooding could decrease in all riverine and upper tidal forests, probably resulting in a shift of species to those that are typically found in forests with shallower, shorter-duration floods. Salinity in the lower tidal reach and adjacent areas of the upper tidal reach might increase with flow reductions, and the distribution of species might change due to varying tolerances of salinity among species. Species with low salt-tolerance unique to the lower tidal reach might disappear from the floodplain, and species with high salinity tolerance could increase in abundance, replacing less salt-tolerant species.
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Ground-cover vegetation in wetland forests of the lower Suwannee River floodplain, Florida, and potential impacts of flow reductions