Comparing riparian forest processes on large rivers to inform floodplain management and restoration

Thursday, 18 December 2014
John C Stella1, Hervé Piegay2,3, Charles Gruel2, Jess Riddle1 and Bianca Raepple2,3, (1)SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Forest and Natural Resources Management, Syracuse, NY, United States, (2)Environnement Ville et Société (EVS), CNRS UMR 5600, ENS de Lyon, Lyon, France, (3)Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique - CNRS, Lyon, France
In populous, water-limited regions, humans have profoundly altered the river and floodplain environment to satisfy society’s demands for water, power, navigation and safety. River management also profoundly alters riparian forests, which respond to changes in disturbance regimes and sediment dynamics. In this study, we compare forest and floodplain development along two of the most heavily modified rivers in mediterranean-climate regions, the middle Sacramento (California, USA) and the lower Rhône (SE France). The Sacramento was dammed in 1942 and is now managed for irrigation, hydropower and flood control. The Rhône channel was engineered for navigation prior to 1900, and since then has been dammed and diverted at 18 sites for hydropower and irrigation. We conducted extensive forest inventories and sampled fine sediment depth in regulated reaches within both systems, and compared pre- versus post-dam patterns of deposition and linked forest development. We sampled 441 plots (500 m2 each) along 160 km of the Sacramento, and 88 plots (1256 m2) stratified by management epoch (pre-river engineering, pre-dam, post-dam) along 160 km of the Rhône.

On the Sacramento, forest composition showed shifting tree species dominance across a chronosequence of aerial photo dates over 110 years. The transition from willow to cottonwood (Populus) occurred within 20 years, and the transition to mixed forest started after 50-60 years. On the Rhône, the pre- versus post-dam surfaces at each site had distinct geomorphic and floristic characteristics. Floodplain areas that emerged and were forested in the pre-dam period were at higher elevation, and supported 30-50% more basal area, 20-30% more vine cover, and greater plant species diversity than those that emerged in the post-dam period. The shift from Populus dominance to other species began approximately a decade earlier on the Rhône compared to the Sacramento. Both rivers showed a strong understory presence on young floodplains by Acer negundo (box elder), which is non-native and invasive in Europe, suggesting similar processes of colonization and propagation in both systems. Overall, the Sacramento can serve as a predictive reference system for the Rhône, where significant restoration efforts are undeway to improve riparian structure and function in diverted river reaches.