Woody riparian vegetation in western North American riparian ecosystems is commonly dependent on alluvial groundwater. Various natural and anthropogenic mechanisms can cause groundwater declines that stress riparian vegetation, but little quantitative information exists on the nature of plant response to different magnitudes, rates, and durations of groundwater decline. We observed groundwater dynamics and the response of Populus fremontii, Salix gooddingii, and Tamarix ramosissima saplings at 3 sites between 1995 and 1997 along the Bill Williams River, Arizona. At a site where the lowest observed groundwater level in 1996 (-1.97 m) was 1.11 m lower than that in 1995 (-0.86 m), 92-100% of Populus and Salix saplings died, whereas 0-13% of Tamarix stems died. A site with greater absolute water table depths in 1996 (-2.55 m), but less change from the 1995 condition (0.55 m), showed less Populus and Salix mortality and increased basal area. Excavations of sapling roots suggest that root distribution is related to groundwater history. Therefore, a decline in water table relative to the condition under which roots developed may strand plant roots where they cannot obtain sufficient moisture. Plant response is likely mediated by other factors such as soil texture and stratigraphy, availability of precipitation-derived soil moisture, physiological and morphological adaptations to water stress, and tree age. An understanding of the relationships between water table declines and plant response may enable land and water managers to avoid activities that are likely to stress desirable riparian vegetation.