Associations between riparian plant morphological guilds and fluvial sediment dynamics along the regulated Colorado River in Grand Canyon

Published by Stephanie Mayer on

Effects of riparian vegetation on fluvial sediment dynamics depend on morphological traits of the constituent species. Determining the effects of different morphological guilds on sedimentation rates, as influenced by multiple aspects of dam operations, can help identify viable strategies for streamflow and vegetation management to achieve riparian resource goals. Plants of increasing size and branching density or complexity have been found to have greater effects on sedimentation in free-flowing systems; however, this relationship could differ in regulated rivers. We tested the hypothesis that plant guilds of increasing height and branching complexity would be positively associated with sedimentation rates on 23 sandbars deposited in zones of recirculating flow (eddies) along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. We used an image-based vegetation classification and digital elevation models from annual topographic surveys to track associations between six plant morphological guilds and topographic change over 5?years. Vegetation had significant associations with deposition after accounting for geomorphic setting, but the ordinal guild scale was not positively correlated with deposition magnitude. Instead, low-statured rhizomatous and herbaceous guilds were particularly effective at capturing sediment in the separation zone of sandbars, whereas tall herbs and large shrubs were most effective at capturing sediment in reattachment zones. These nuanced interactions between geomorphic position and morphological guild may be a direct consequence of flow regulation through modifications to physical deposition and erosion processes. Flow regulation may also select for a narrow subset of morphological guilds, reducing the diversity of vegetation feedbacks on sedimentation and emphasizing geomorphic drivers.