The Paradox of Restoring Native River Landscapes and Restoring Native Ecosystems in the Colorado River System

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 9:45 AM
John C Schmidt, US Geological Survey, Flagstaff, AZ, United States
Throughout the Colorado River basin (CRb), scientists and river managers collaborate to improve native ecosystems. Native ecosystems have deteriorated due to construction of dams and diversions that alter natural flow, sediment supply, and temperature regimes, trans-basin diversions that extract large amounts of water from some segments of the channel network, and invasion of non-native animals and plants. These scientist/manager collaborations occur in large, multi-stakeholder, adaptive management programs that include the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program, the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program, and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Species Recovery Program. Although a fundamental premise of native species recovery is that restoration of predam flow regimes inevitably leads to native species recovery, such is not the case in many parts of the CRb. For example, populations of the endangered humpback chub (Gila cypha) are largest in the sediment deficit, thermally altered conditions of the Colorado River downstream from Glen Canyon Dam, but these species occur in much smaller numbers in the upper CRb even though the flow regime, sediment supply, and sediment mass balance are less perturbed. Similar contrasts in the physical and biological response of restoration of predam flow regimes occurs in floodplains dominated by nonnative tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) where reestablishment of floods has the potential to exacerbate vertical accretion processes that disconnect the floodplain from the modern flow regime. A significant challenge in restoring segments of the CRb is to describe this paradox of physical and biological response to reestablishment of pre-dam flow regimes, and to clearly identify objectives of environmentally oriented river management. In many cases, understanding the nature of the perturbation to sediment mass balance caused by dams and diversions and understanding the constraints imposed by societal commitments to provide assured water supplies and hydroelectricity constrains the opportunities for rehabilitation and limits the management objectives to focus either on restoring predam physical processes or recovering native fish fauna and/or recovering native plant communities.