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Climate, streamflow, and legacy effects on growth of riparian Populus angustifolia in the arid San Luis Valley, Colorado

August 10, 2016

Knowledge of the factors affecting the vigor of desert riparian trees is important for their conservation and management. I used multiple regression to assess effects of streamflow and climate (12–14 years of data) or climate alone (up to 60 years of data) on radial growth of clonal narrowleaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia), a foundation species in the arid, Closed Basin portion of the San Luis Valley, Colorado. I collected increment cores from trees (14–90 cm DBH) at four sites along each of Sand and Deadman creeks (total N = 85), including both perennial and ephemeral reaches. Analyses on trees <110 m from the stream channel explained 33–64% of the variation in standardized growth index (SGI) over the period having discharge measurements. Only 3 of 7 models included a streamflow variable; inclusion of prior-year conditions was common. Models for trees farther from the channel or over a deep water table explained 23–71% of SGI variability, and 4 of 5 contained a streamflow variable. Analyses using solely climate variables over longer time periods explained 17–85% of SGI variability, and 10 of 12 included a variable indexing summer precipitation. Three large, abrupt shifts in recent decades from wet to dry conditions (indexed by a seasonal Palmer Drought Severity Index) coincided with dramatically reduced radial growth. Each shift was presumably associated with branch dieback that produced a legacy effect apparent in many SGI series: uncharacteristically low SGI in the year following the shift. My results suggest trees in locations distant from the active channel rely on the regional shallow unconfined aquifer, summer rainfall, or both to meet water demands. The landscape-level differences in the water supplies sustaining these trees imply variable effects from shifts in winter-versus monsoon-related precipitation, and from climate change versus streamflow or groundwater management.