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Short-term geomorphological and riparian vegetation responses to a 40-year flood on a braided, dryland river

October 10, 2019

In December 2010, a 40-yr flood occurred in the lower Virgin River (SE Nevada, southwestern U.S.), a braided river segment with riparian vegetation largely dominated by invasive shrubs in the genus Tamarix. We assessed geomorphological and vegetation responses to this large magnitude disturbance event by comparing pre- and post-flood remote sensing and field survey data in four river reaches. Analyses of orthophotos and LiDAR-derived topography showed that both the active channel area and channel width increased between ~80 and 258%, representing an increase from 13% to 30% of the total river corridor area. Erosion predominated in the outer bends of the enlarged channel and deposition in the pre-flood channel, causing local avulsions of the low-flow channel. Field-based topographic data recorded before and after the flood in 385 plots also showed that deposition occurred in parts of the floodplain that were not eroded. Two thirds of woody vegetation cover (mainly dominated by Tamarix, with some native shrub Pluchea sericea) was lost in areas that eroded (~20% of the river corridor). In the remaining ~80% of stable river corridor (aggrading or no change in elevation) Tamarix remained dominant. Following erosion, but also where sediment deposition predominated under the Tamarix canopy, the most common colonizing vegetation in the understory was comprised of annual plants, especially Salsola tragus. Overall, our study supported previous studies describing large floods in braided rivers: we documented the first phase of a cycle of channel widening and increase in vegetation heterogeneity that is commonly followed by narrowing and vegetation homogenization. We underscore the importance of rivers with mostly unregulated flood regimes as laboratories for understanding eco-hydrologic feedbacks.

Publication Year 2019
Title Short-term geomorphological and riparian vegetation responses to a 40-year flood on a braided, dryland river
DOI 10.1002/eco.2152
Authors Eduardo Gozalez, Patrick B. Shafroth, Steven R. Lee, Glen T. Leverich, Rafael Real de Asua, Rebecca A. Sherry, Steven M. Ostoja, Bruce K. Orr
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecohydrology
Index ID 70209086
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center