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Hydrologic and geomorphic effects on riparian plant species occurrence and encroachment: Remote sensing of 360 km of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon

August 31, 2021

A common impact on riparian ecosystem function following river regulation is the expansion and encroachment of riparian plant species in the active river channels and floodplain, which reduces flow of water and suspended sediment between the river, riparian area, and upland ecosystems. We characterized riparian plant species occurrence and quantified encroachment within the dam-regulated Colorado River in Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA. We mapped 10 riparian species with high-resolution multispectral imagery and examined effects of river hydrology and geomorphology on the spatial distribution of plant species and open sand. Analysis spanned an image time-series from 2002-2009-2013; a period when plant species and sand were spatially dynamic, and operations of Glen Canyon Dam included daily hydro-peaking and small episodic controlled flood releases. Plant species occurrence and encroachment rates varied with hydrology, geomorphology, and local species pool. Encroachment was greatest on surfaces frequently inundated by hydro-peaking. Seep willow (Baccharis spp.), tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) and arrowweed (Pluchea sericea) were the primary encroaching woody species. Common reed (Phragmites australis) and horsetail (Equisetum xferrissii) were the primary encroaching herbaceous species. Encroachment composition from 2002 to 2009 was similar to the entire riparian landscape, whereas encroachment from 2009 to 2013 primarily consisted of seep willow and early-colonizing herbaceous species. Emergence of seep willow and arrowweed after burial by sand deposited by controlled floods indicated that those species were resilient to this form of disturbance. Describing patterns of species encroachment is an important step towards designing flow regimes that favor riparian species and ecosystem functions valued by stakeholders.