Research Summaries


Compiled by Alan Carpenter

Brooks, K. Fryirs, M. Leishman, M. Sanders, A. Arthington, R. Creese, M. Dahm, C. Miller, B. Pusey, and A. Spink.
2010. Inside the “black box” of river restoration: using catchment history to identify disturbance and response mechanisms to set targets for process-based restoration. Ecology and Society 15(4): 8.
Available online at:

Many river restoration projects fail. Inadequate project planning underpins many of the reasons given for failure (such as setting overly ambitious goals; selecting inappropriate sites and techniques; losing stakeholder motivation; and neglecting to monitor, assess, and document projects). Another major problem is the lack of an agreed guiding image to direct the activities aimed at restoring the necessary biophysical and ecological processes within the logistic constraints of on-ground works. Despite a rich literature defining the components of restoration project planning, restoration ecology currently lacks an explicit and logical means of moving from the initial project vision through to on-ground strategies. Yet this process is fundamental because it directly links the ecological goals of the project to the on-ground strategies used to achieve them. We present a planning process that explicitly uses an interdisciplinary mechanistic model of disturbance drivers and system responses to build from the initial project vision to the implementation of on-ground works. A worked example on the Upper Hunter River in southeastern Australia shows how understanding catchment history can reveal disturbance and response mechanisms, thus facilitating process-based restoration.

Beauchamp, V. B., and P. B. Shafroth.
2011. Floristic composition, beta diversity, and nestedness of reference sites for restoration of xeroriparian areas. Ecological Applications 21:465-476.

In restoration ecology, reference sites serve as models for areas to be restored and can provide a standard of comparison for restoration project outcomes. When reference sites are located a relatively long distance from associated restoration projects, differences in climate, disturbance history, and biogeography can increase beta diversity and may decrease the relevance of reference sites. Variation in factors at the scale of individual reference sites such as patch size, microclimate, barriers to dispersal, or soil chemistry can result in reference site species composition that is a nested subset of the regional species pool. In the western United States, restoration of riparian areas, particularly those occupied by Tamarix spp., has become a priority; however, little is known about suitable native replacement vegetation communities for relatively dry and saline riparian terraces that comprise many of the sites where Tamarix is removed prior to restoration activities. We studied plant communities on riparian terraces along five rivers in New Mexico, USA, to (1) determine whether the floristic composition of reference sites can be predicted by easily measured soil variables such as pH, salinity (electric conductivity), and texture; (2) examine the extent of distance decay in the compositional similarity of xeroriparian plant communities in the southwestern United States; and (3) determine the degree of nestedness in xeroriparian plant communities in relationship to soil variables. We found that sites clustered into groups based largely on variation in soil salinity and texture. Vegetation across all sites was highly nested with dominant, salt-tolerant species found on most soil groups and salt-intolerant subordinate species restricted to low-salinity soils. The identity of subordinate species was largely site dependent, causing all sites to have the same low degree of similarity regardless of the distance between them. We conclude that, when planning restoration projects on dry and saline riparian sites, soil salinity and texture are good predictors of which species will be most suited to the area being restored, but a candidate species pool should be developed from the nearest possible reference sites, particularly for subordinate species.

White, J. M., and J. C. Stromberg.
2011. Resilience, restoration, and riparian Ecosystems: case study of a dryland, urban river. Restoration Ecology 19:101-111.

Resilient systems can absorb disturbance and persist despite variability as long as the capacity of the system to adapt is not exceeded. Riparian plant communities of dryland alluvial rivers are expected to be naturally resilient systems because they persist in the highly variable floodplain. River modification has altered the flow regime on many dryland rivers, in some cases exceeding the adaptive capacity of the riparian vegetation, but these changes may be readily reversible. The Salt River in Phoenix, Arizona has been impounded, dewatered, channelized, but also re-watered with urban effluent and storm drain runoff. To determine whether riparian vegetation is resilient to these various perturbations, paired comparisons were made in the vegetation and seed bank between a non-diverted reference reach, a diverted reach, and a re-watered urban reach. In the diverted reach, composition had shifted to that of a stress tolerant xeroriparian shrubland with low diversity in both the seed bank and extant vegetation. Most surprisingly, few differences were observed in the composition and structure of the vegetation and soil seed banks between the reference reach and the urban reach, particularly in the wet patches, suggesting that hydric riparian plant communities have the capacity to adapt to these modified conditions. These results provide support for a process-oriented approach to restoration on the Salt River and other urban dryland rivers using patches of persisting vegetation as models for achievable restoration targets.

McClain, C. D., K. D. Holl, and D. M. Wood.
2011. Successional models as guides for restoration of riparian forest understory. Restoration Ecology 19:280-289.

We compare two successional models as guides for restoring native riparian understory species along a 160-km stretch of the Sacramento River in California. In 2001 and 2007, we surveyed cover, frequency, and richness of native and exotic understory species in 15 sites planted (1989-1996) with overstory species to determine whether native understory species colonized naturally (passive relay floristics model). In 2007, we surveyed 20 additional sites (planted 1997-2003) in 14 of which understory species were planted (initial floristics model) to evaluate whether planting accelerated community recovery. We surveyed 10 remnant forests as references for successional trajectories. Mean cover and frequency of natives changed little over time in sites where they were not planted initially; increases in native cover in a few sites were primarily due to a single common species (Galium aparine). Species composition shifted from light-demanding to shade-adapted species, both exotic and native, in response to a doubling of overstory cover. Sites with high intensity understory plantings had greater cover and frequency of native understory species than unplanted sites, but were still low relative to reference forests. Light-demanding natives (e.g., Artemisia douglasiana, Rubus ursinus, and grasses) established in sites where they were planted; however, a shade-adapted species (Carex barbarae) did not survive well. Our research indicates that the passive relay floristics and the initial floristic composition approaches serve to restore a few common native understory species, but that planting species as site conditions become appropriate (active relay floristics model) will be needed to restore entire native understory communities.

Hall, A. A., S. B. Rood, and P. S. Higgins.
2011. Resizing a river: A downscaled, seasonal flow regime promotes riparian restoration 19:351-359.

While riverine organisms are adapted to the natural flow regime, it is impractical to fully restore natural flows along most regulated rivers. We propose an alternative with the delivery of downscaled flow regimes that provide the seasonal patterns that are essential for aquatic and riparian ecosystems. The Bridge River in British Columbia provided a novel case study as a downscaled flow regime commenced in 2000 along a reach that had generally experienced no flow for the prior half-century. The experimental flow delivered a mean discharge of about 3 m3/s, versus the pre-dam mean of 100 m3/s, with a seasonal pattern that mimicked the natural snowmelt-dominated pattern. To assess the environmental response, we investigated black cottonwoods, Populus trichocarpa, the dominant riparian trees, in the pre-flow versus post-flow intervals, using tree ring interpretation for growth analyses and age determination. Sparse mature trees established prior to the 1948 damming did not show significant growth changes in the pre- versus post-flow intervals. In contrast, younger trees that established closer to the river in the decade prior to 2000 displayed significant growth increases by 2002, and juveniles established after 2000 demonstrated faster initial growth than juveniles established before 2000. Further, bands of cottonwood saplings resulted from seedling recruitment along the new river fringe, particularly in 2002, 2003, and 2004, years with gradual flow recession. These responses demonstrate that a downscaled, seasonal flow regime provided environmental benefit, thereby restoring some river function and resulting in a resized river flanked by narrow and reproducing cottonwood bands.

Anderson, D. C., P. B. Shafroth, C. M. Pritekel, and M. W. O’Neill.
2011. Managed flood effects on beaver pond habitat in a desert riverine ecosystem, Bill Williams River, Arizona USA . Wetlands 31:195-206

The ecological effects of beaver in warm-desert streams are poorly documented, but potentially significant. For example, stream water and sediment budgets may be affected by increased evaporative losses and sediment retention in beaver ponds. We measured physical attributes of beaver pond and adjacent lotic habitats on a regulated Sonoran Desert stream, the Bill Williams River, after =11 flood-free months in Spring 2007 and Spring 2008. Neither a predicted warming of surface water as it passed through a pond nor a reduction in dissolved oxygen in ponds was consistently observed, but bed sediment sorted to finest in ponds as expected. We observed a river segment-scale downstream rise in daily minimum stream temperature that may have been influenced by the series of ~100 beaver ponds present. Channel cross-sections surveyed before and after an experimental flood (peak flow 65 m3/s) showed net aggradation on nine of 13 cross-sections through ponds and three of seven through lotic reaches. Our results indicate that beaver affect riverine processes in warm deserts much as they do in other biomes. However, effects may be magnified in deserts through the potential for beaver to alter the stream thermal regime and water budget.

LaPerriere Nelson, M., C. C. Rhoades, and K. A. Dwire.
2011 Influence of bedrock geology on water chemistry of slope wetlands and headwater streams in the Southern Rocky Mountains. Wetlands 31:251-261.

We characterized the water chemistry of nine slope wetlands and adjacent headwater streams in Colorado subalpine forests and compared sites in basins formed on crystalline bedrock with those formed in basins with a mixture of crystalline and sedimentary bedrock. The pH, Ca2+, Mg2+, NH4+, acid neutralizing capacity, and electrical conductivity of wetland porewater and streamwater were higher in the basins with mixed geology. Bryophyte cover was higher in lower pH, crystalline basins, and vascular plant cover was higher in the mixed bedrock basins. On average, wetland porewater had lower pH and higher concentrations of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and nitrogen and several other ions than streamwater; however, because discharge from these small wetlands is low, their direct influence on stream solute concentrations was generally undetectable. Dilution altered stream solute concentrations during peak flow in both basin types, but had little effect on wetland chemistry. In contrast to other solutes, the concentration of DOC in streams increased marginally during peak runoff and its concentration in wetland porewater was stable throughout the year. These findings further knowledge of the influence of watershed characteristics on wetland and stream chemistry and will inform future decisions regarding conservation and management in headwater basins.