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Remote sensing analysis of riparian vegetation response to desert marsh restoration in the Mexican Highlands

September 8, 2014

Desert marshes, or cienegas, are extremely biodiverse habitats imperiled by anthropogenic demands for water and changing climates. Given their widespread loss and increased recognition, remarkably little is known about restoration techniques. In this study, we examine the effects of gabions (wire baskets filled with rocks used as dams) on vegetation in the Cienega San Bernardino, in the Arizona, Sonora portion of the US-Mexico border, using a remote-sensing analysis coupled with field data. The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), used here as a proxy for plant biomass, is compared at gabion and control sites over a 27-year period during the driest months (May/June). Over this period, green-up occurred at most sites where there were gabions and at a few of the control sites where gabions had not been constructed. When we statistically controlled for differences among sites in source area, stream order, elevation, and interannual winter rainfall, as well as comparisons of before and after the initiation of gabion construction, vegetation increased around gabions yet did not change (or decreased) where there were no gabions. We found that NDVI does not vary with precipitation inputs prior to construction of gabions but demonstrates a strong response to precipitation after the gabions are built. Field data describing plant cover, species richness, and species composition document increases from 2000 to 2012 and corroborate reestablished biomass at gabions. Our findings validate that gabions can be used to restore riparian vegetation and potentially ameliorate drought conditions in a desert cienega.