Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Does large dam removal restore downstream riparian vegetation diversity? Testing predictions on the Elwha River, Washington, USA

September 28, 2022

Large dams and their removal can profoundly affect riparian ecosystems by altering flow and sediment regimes, hydrochory, and landform dynamics, yet few studies have documented these effects on downstream plant communities. Ecological theory and empirical results suggest that by altering disturbance regimes, reducing hydrochory, and shifting communities to later successional stages, dams reduce downstream plant diversity. Dam removal could reverse these processes, but the release of large volumes of sediment could have unexpected, transient effects. Two large dams were removed on the Elwha River in Washington State, USA, from 2011-2014, representing an unprecedented opportunity to study large dam removal effects on riparian plant communities. Our research objectives were to determine: 1) whether the Elwha River dams were associated with lower downstream plant diversity and altered species composition across riparian landforms pre-dam removal, and 2) whether dam removal has begun to restore downstream diversity and composition. To address these objectives, we compared plant species richness and community composition in river segments above, below, and between the two dams. Plant communities were sampled twice before (2005 and 2010) and four times after (2013, 2014, 2016, and 2017) the start of dam removal, with 2013 and 2014 sampled while the upstream dam removal was ongoing. Prior to dam removal, native species richness was 41% lower below dams compared to the upstream segment; six years after dam removal began, it increased ~31% between the dams, while nonnative species richness and cover were not apparently affected by dams or their removal. Deposition caused by large volumes of released reservoir sediment had mixed effects on native species richness (increased on floodplains, decreased elsewhere) in the lowest river segment. Plant community composition was also different downstream from dams compared to the upstream reference, and has changed in downstream floodplains and bars since dam removal. Long-term, we expect that diversity will continue to increase in downstream river segments. Our results provide evidence that 1) large dams reduce downstream native plant diversity, 2) dam removal may restore it, and 3) given the natural dynamics of riparian vegetation, long-term, multi-year before-and-after-monitoring is essential for understanding dam removal effects.

Publication Year 2022
Title Does large dam removal restore downstream riparian vegetation diversity? Testing predictions on the Elwha River, Washington, USA
DOI 10.1002/eap.2591
Authors Rebecca L. Brown, Cody C. Thomas, Erin S. Cubley, Aaron J. Clausen, Patrick B. Shafroth
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Applications
Index ID 70237056
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center