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River flow and riparian vegetation dynamics - implications for management of the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument

April 1, 2018

This report addresses the relation between flow of the Yampa River and occurrence of herbaceous and woody riparian vegetation in Dinosaur National Monument (DINO) with the goal of informing management decisions related to potential future water development. The Yampa River in DINO flows through diverse valley settings, from the relatively broad restricted meanders of Deerlodge Park to narrower canyons, including debris fan-affected reaches in the upper Yampa Canyon and entrenched meanders in Harding Hole and Laddie Park. Analysis of occurrence of all plant species measured in 1470 quadrats by multiple authors over the last 24 years shows that riparian vegetation along the Yampa River is strongly related to valley setting and geomorphic surfaces, defined here as active channel, active floodplain, inactive floodplain, and upland. Principal Coordinates Ordination arrayed quadrats and species along gradients of overall cover and moisture availability, from upland and inactive floodplain quadrats and associated xeric species like western wheat grass (Pascopyrum smithii), cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), and saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) to active channel and active floodplain quadrats supporting more mesic species including sandbar willow (Salix exigua), wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota), and cordgrass (Spartina spp.). Indicator species analysis identified plants strongly correlated with geomorphic surfaces. These species indicate state changes in geomorphic surfaces, such as the conversion of active channel to floodplain during channel narrowing.

The dominant woody riparian species along the Yampa River are invasive tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima), and native Fremont cottonwood (Populus deltoides ssp. wislizenii), box elder (Acer negundo L. var. interius), and sandbar willow (Salix exigua). These species differ in tolerance of drought, salinity, inundation, flood disturbance and shade, and in seed size, timing of seed dispersal and ability to form root sprouts. These physiological and ecological differences interact with flow variation and geomorphic setting, resulting in differential patterns of occurrence. For example, in park settings cottonwood is far more abundant than box elder, while the reverse is true in canyons.

Synthesis of existing knowledge from the Yampa and Green rivers and elsewhere suggests that the following flow-vegetation relations can be used to assess effects of future flow alterations in the Yampa River.

  • High variability in flow within and between years removes vegetation through erosion, extended inundation and desiccation, creating the broad, open surfaces in and near the channel that are characteristic of lightly regulated rivers in western North America. This flow variability provides opportunities for establishment of disturbance-dependent riparian species.
  • Flow regulation that results in lower peak flows and higher low flows allows proliferation of woody riparian vegetation, mostly tamarisk in canyon reaches, but both tamarisk and cottonwood in parks. Denser near-channel vegetation promotes sediment deposition leading to channel narrowing. Decreasing flow variability also increases area of species associated with extremely high and low inundation durations relative to species associated with moderate inundation duration. In addition, such flow regulation decreases occurrence of species tolerant of fluvial disturbance, while increasing occurrence of species tolerant of extended inundation.
  • Over the long term, establishment of cottonwood and tamarisk requires disturbance by large floods, which provides openings for new individuals. At the annual time scale, establishment can occur in any year or location that provides a moist, open surface free from frequent future disturbance. In canyons, where channel movement is limited, low surfaces are too frequently disturbed for long-term survival of cottonwood, and establishment requirements are generally met only in years of moderate to high peak flows. In park settings cottonwood establishment may also occur in years of low peak flows where survival is promoted by movement of the channel away from the seedling.
  • Peak flows early in the growing season promote establishment of cottonwood and sandbar willow seedlings relative to those of tamarisk. This is because cottonwood and willow seed release occurs early in the summer, while that of tamarisk occurs later. Late season seed release of tamarisk allows it to establish lower on the floodplain than cottonwood.
  • Because of its shade tolerance and the energy stored in its large seeds, box elder can become established beneath existing vegetation, an ability not shared by cottonwood, tamarisk or willow. Although box elder does not require flood disturbance, it does take advantage of soil moisture from floods, which allow this species to become established high above the channel.
  • Decreases in flow peaks, volumes or base flows decrease growth and survival of cottonwood relative to drought-tolerant tamarisk. Storing water from the spring peak in a reservoir for release after the April-July cottonwood growth window may also decrease growth and survival of cottonwood relative to tamarisk. Decreases in peak flows decrease floodplain inundation, which can reduce growth of floodplain species by preventing recharge of the floodplain aquifer.
  • Two or more years in a row with similar flows promote establishment of woody vegetation. Subsequent sediment deposition around this vegetation, especially if the vegetation is tamarisk, results in channel narrowing and simplification.
  • Rapid declines in the descending limb of the hydrograph kill riparian woody seedlings by desiccation. Fluctuations in the descending limb can kill seedlings by desiccation and inundation. Thus rapid declines and fluctuations would be counterproductive following early-season peaks prescribed to promote cottonwood, but would be consistent with the goal of preventing tamarisk establishment following a late-season peak.
  • The tendency of regulated flows to keep returning to a small number of fixed discharge values (such as power plant capacity or a fixed minimum flow) can cause unnaturally sharp banding of geomorphic surfaces, topography and vegetation that is not necessarily erased by large flood peaks.
  • Changes in sediment load relative to transport capacity may promote channel change especially in alluvial settings. For example, decreases in sediment input from the Little Snake River Basin since 1960 (or earlier) could be associated with channel narrowing and temporary increases in establishment of both cottonwood and tamarisk along the Yampa River.
  • Increases in salinity of water or soil promote tamarisk over the native woody species. Even if water salinity does not increase, floodplain soil salinity can be increased by decreasing the flushing caused by overbank flooding.
Publication Year 2018
Title River flow and riparian vegetation dynamics - implications for management of the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument
Authors Michael L. Scott, Jonathan M. Friedman
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Series Title Natural Resource Report
Series Number NPS/NRSS/WRD/NRR—2018/1619
Index ID 70196944
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center