3
Human Alterations of Riparian Areas

Because humans worldwide now use more than half (~54 percent) of the geographically and temporally accessible river runoff (Postel et al., 1996), it is not surprising that we have had a significant impact on the structure and functioning of riparian areas. Human effects range from changes in the hydrology of rivers and riparian areas and alteration of geomorphic structure to the removal of riparian vegetation. Drastic declines in the acreage and condition of riparian lands in the United States since European settlement are testimony to these effects.

Manipulation of the hydrologic regimes that influence the physical and biological character of riparian systems has often occurred via the construction of dams, interbasin diversion, and irrigation. As discussed below, these activities disconnect rivers from their floodplains. A second major impact is related to the initial harvest of riparian areas, followed by subsequent conversion to other plant species via forestry, agriculture, livestock grazing, residential development, and urbanization. The removal of streamside vegetation not only removes the binding effects of roots upon the soil, but also causes a reduction in the hydraulic roughness of the bank and an increase in flow velocities near the bank (Sedell and Beschta, 1991). Such situations invariably lead to accelerated channel erosion during subsequent periods of high flow. Although degradation of native riparian plant communities by forestry, agriculture, and grazing can often be reversed, other practices such as drainage modifications and structural developments in urban areas generally lead to irreversible changes in riparian areas over long time periods.



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Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management 3 Human Alterations of Riparian Areas Because humans worldwide now use more than half (~54 percent) of the geographically and temporally accessible river runoff (Postel et al., 1996), it is not surprising that we have had a significant impact on the structure and functioning of riparian areas. Human effects range from changes in the hydrology of rivers and riparian areas and alteration of geomorphic structure to the removal of riparian vegetation. Drastic declines in the acreage and condition of riparian lands in the United States since European settlement are testimony to these effects. Manipulation of the hydrologic regimes that influence the physical and biological character of riparian systems has often occurred via the construction of dams, interbasin diversion, and irrigation. As discussed below, these activities disconnect rivers from their floodplains. A second major impact is related to the initial harvest of riparian areas, followed by subsequent conversion to other plant species via forestry, agriculture, livestock grazing, residential development, and urbanization. The removal of streamside vegetation not only removes the binding effects of roots upon the soil, but also causes a reduction in the hydraulic roughness of the bank and an increase in flow velocities near the bank (Sedell and Beschta, 1991). Such situations invariably lead to accelerated channel erosion during subsequent periods of high flow. Although degradation of native riparian plant communities by forestry, agriculture, and grazing can often be reversed, other practices such as drainage modifications and structural developments in urban areas generally lead to irreversible changes in riparian areas over long time periods.

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Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management The impacts to riparian areas are manifested in the quality of adjacent waterbodies throughout the United States. Only about two percent of the nation’s streams and rivers are classified as having high water quality (Benke, 1990). A 1998 summary of polluted waters for all 50 states indicates there are more than 300,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than 5 million acres of lakes that do not meet state water-quality standards (EPA, 2000). HYDROLOGIC AND GEOMORPHIC ALTERATIONS Throughout history, societies have sought to regulate water resources. Today, over three-fourths of the 139 largest river ecosystems in the northern third of the earth are strongly or moderately fragmented by dams, interbasin diversions, and irrigation (Dynesius and Nilsson, 1994). In the contiguous 48 states, all large rivers greater than 1,000 km in length, except the Yellowstone River of Montana, have been severely altered for hydropower and/or navigation, and only 42 free-flowing river segments greater than 200 km in length remain (Benke, 1990). Disconnection of river systems from their historical floodplains is a severe problem worldwide about which there is limited but growing understanding (Naiman and Décamps, 1990). Changes in natural hydrologic disturbance regimes and patterns of sediment transport include alteration of the timing of downstream flow, attenuation of peak flows, and other effects. Such alterations can result from dam construction, from transbasin diversions, or by water removal from rivers for irrigation or other consumptive uses, often in combination. For example, along the mainstem Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, snowmelt peak flows have been suppressed by upriver storage facilities and the management of the river system for both power generation and flood control (NRC, 1996). Similarly, the Willamette River in Oregon has a reduced frequency of overbank flows, disconnected side channels, and greatly reduced potential for maintaining riparian and floodplain forests because of extensive bank stabilization and dam construction (Figure 3-1). Box 3-1 gives an example of the effects of various hydrologic manipulations on riparian plant communities and ecosystem processes in the arid Southwest. The following sections discuss the specific effects of dams, bank-stabilizing structures, levees, and groundwater withdrawal on riparian structure and functioning. The extent to which downstream riparian areas are affected by these changes depends upon the degree of flow and sediment alteration plus the capability of the riparian plant communities to respond to these changing environmental conditions. Dams The vast majority of dam building and associated water resources development in the contiguous United States occurred during the middle portion of the

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Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management FIGURE 3-1 Channelization of the Willamette River since the 1800s has reduced channel complexity, riparian trees, and off-channel habitat. SOURCE: Reprinted, with permission, from Sedell and Froggatt (1984). © 1984 by Science Publishers. twentieth century—an extremely short time period compared to the many thousands of years over which riparian plant communities have adapted to shifting climatic regimes, runoff patterns, and adjustments in channel morphology. There are currently 75,000 dams on the streams and rivers of the United States (Meyer, 1996; Graf, 1999), and large dams1 worldwide are being completed at an estimated rate of 160 to 320 per year (World Commission on Dams, 2000). Dams have been constructed for hydropower generation, irrigation, flood control, domestic and industrial water use, recreational use, improved navigation, or some combination of these uses. Although detailed methods for the design of dams (e.g., Bureau of Reclamation, 1977) have been available for many years, such methods have provided little or no context for understanding the potential impacts such structures might have on other portions of a river and its riparian system. 1   A large dam is 15 meters or more high (from the foundation). A dam 5–15 meters deep with a reservoir volume over 3 million cubic meters is also classified as a large dam. Using this definition, there are more than 45,000 large dams worldwide. (World Commission on Dams website:www.dams.org)

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Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management BOX 3-1 Effects of Multiple Hydrologic Changes The effects of hydrologic manipulation on riparian area functioning have been particularly well documented along the middle Rio Grande (Shaw and Finch, 1996; Molles et al., 1998). Historically, the middle Rio Grande was a flood-dominated ecosystem. Spring snowmelt from the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico produced peak discharges between mid-May and mid-June, based on analysis of more than 100 years of flow records prior to impoundment (Slack et al., 1993). As in other floodplain systems, overbank flooding was an integral component controlling the structure of the riparian forest. Given the relatively frequent flooding of the middle Rio Grande floodplain systems, the riparian area was a complex mosaic of vegetation types, including cottonwood (Populous deltoides ssp. wislizenii), Goodding willow (Salex gooddingii), wet meadows, marshes, and ponds. However, dam construction in the upper basins, river channelization, and water management policies of the twentieth century have cumulatively prevented annual spring flooding in recent decades. For the middle Rio Grande, the last major floods in which large-scale cottonwood establishment occurred were in the spring of 1941 and 1942. Thus, most of the current cottonwood gallery forest reflects a legacy of flooding that occurred over half a century ago. Structural changes in the riparian vegetation have been rapid and well documented. For example, half of the wetlands in the middle Rio Grande have been lost in just 50 years (Crawford et al., 1993). Cottonwood germination, which requires scoured sandbars and adequate moisture from high river flows, has declined substantially (Howe and Knopf, 1991). Meanwhile, invasion by exotic phreatophytic plants such as saltcedar and Russian olive has greatly altered the species composition of the riparian forests within the valley. Native cottonwood stands are in decline in many sections of the river, and the cottonwood-dominated bosque at the Nature Center in Albuquerque has experienced a 40 percent decline in cottonwood leaf litterfall over the past decade (see figure below). Without a change in water management strategies, exotic species are predicted to dominate riparian forests within the next 50–100 years.

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Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management The immediate upstream effects of dam construction are obvious—the complete loss of riparian structure and functioning due to inundation, with other important changes in aquatic species, hydrology, and sediment dynamics of the inundated reaches. In particular, wildlife shifts from predominantly terrestrial species and stream-dwelling fish to predominantly lake dwelling fish. The streambank is replaced by extensive and often unstable shoreline in which floodplain vegetation is eliminated. Five percent of the total length of major rivers has been permanently inundated by large reservoirs, essentially removing their associated riparian areas (Brinson et al., 1981). More recently, attention has been paid to the principal physical alterations of rivers downstream of dams (Rood and Mahoney, 1991). In general, dams reduce the biophysical variability (in flow, temperature, and materials transport) characteristic of rivers, which in turn reduces the biodiversity of both riparian and instream flora and fauna (Stanford et al., 1996). First, with regard to sediment dynamics, suspended sediment (clay, silt, and fine sand) and bedload sediment (coarse sand, gravel, and cobble) transported by a river settle in the slow-moving waters of a reservoir. Although their trapping effectiveness can vary somewhat, most reservoirs are effective at trapping silt-sized and larger particles. If residence times of the stored water are relatively long, large reservoirs may also be effective at trapping clay-sized particles. Over long periods, the channels below a dam can become increasingly “sediment starved,” with a concurrent coarsening of sediments comprising the channel bottom. Following impoundment, a reduction in the sediment load can prevent the regular development of such geomorphologic features as point bars and islands in larger scale rivers, as was demonstrated in the Slave River Delta (English et al., 1997). Although this is the general paradigm, actual changes depend on local conditions downstream from a dam. For example, if high flows have been suppressed by an upstream dam, sediment-laden tributaries that enter a river below the dam may cause large amounts of sediment to accumulate in the main river. In essence, a loss of river transport capacity due to flow modifications by the upstream dam encourages incoming tributary sediments to accumulate over time. A second category of downstream alteration is related to the pattern of river flow, where the magnitude of such effects is largely dependent upon the degree of hydrologic alteration created by the dam. Dams that are used only for flood control and hydropower generation may not significantly diminish the amount of water available to downstream channels, although these structures can have a major effect on the overall flow regime (the frequency, magnitude, and temporal distribution of flows). For example, flood-control dams that store water during periods of peak runoff for later release will dampen the magnitude of high flows that would occur normally and increase the duration of moderate flows. Large flood-control dams can effectively accomplish this goal over a wide range of peak flow magnitudes (although the effectiveness of a given dam for dampening downstream peaks tends to diminish with increasingly larger precipitation events).

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Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management Other dams may dewater downstream reaches, such as when diversion structures are used to withdraw water to meet local irrigation or other consumptive uses (e.g., Stromberg and Patten, 1990). Although diversion structures are often relatively small in size and may pass high flows essentially unhindered, some are capable of diverting the entire flow during periods of moderate to low flow. In some cases, diverted waters become part of a system of transbasin diversions that may carry water long distances via tunnels, canals, or natural channels to desired locations (e.g., irrigated agricultural lands, municipalities). Structures that divert significant volumes of flow reduce the amount of water available to downstream riparian plant communities. Dams that have perhaps the greatest effects upon downstream flow regimes are those that have both large storage capacities (relative to runoff amounts) and are used primarily for supplying irrigation water. Because these structures can effectively store large volumes of flow for consumptive use, they can create significant decreases in downstream flows for long time periods and over the entire range of flow magnitudes. Clearly, the size of a dam and factors governing the storage and release of water (e.g., operational policies, physical constraints on the amount of water that can be released) determine the potential impacts of individual dams on downstream riparian systems. A type with minimal impact would be a “run-of-the-river” dam, such as a low-head hydroelectric dam. Although this type of structure might be used to generate hydropower locally, it would not result in the diversion of flows out of the channel system for use elsewhere. Such a structure might have little effect on the frequency, timing, magnitude, or duration of flows relative to those of an undisturbed or unregulated flow regime. If the run-of-the-river structure also passes sediment, effects upon downstream riparian systems might well be insignificant. In contrast, dams that store relatively large volumes of water relative to the amount of flow from a drainage basin have the potential to significantly alter the character of downstream riparian areas. The characteristic flow regime and sediment dynamics of lakes can also be vastly altered by dam construction. For example, Flathead Lake in Montana has undergone substantial reconfiguration of its shoreline since construction of a dam at its outlet in 1935. Prior to impoundment, the natural flow regime was shortterm elevation of lake level followed by recession to base elevation. Thus, the natural shoreline was well adjusted to the wave energy generated by the lake, and the shoreline was naturally armored with rocks and gravel deposited over hundreds of years since the glaciers that formed the lake retreated. Current dam regulation, however, maintains the lake above the natural armor, such that wave energy must be dissipated in the soft laucustran sediments laid down immediately after glacial retreat. Especially during storms, this wave action has led to erosion of the lake shoreline as well as erosion of the delta where the Flathead River flows into the lake (Lorang et al., 1993a,b; Lorang and Stanford, 1993). Only relatively recently have scientists attempted to address the hydrologic

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Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management linkages between dam-altered flows and their effects on riparian plant communities (Nilsson et al., 1997). The reduction in the magnitude of peak flows and the increase in duration of low flows brought about by some dams is expected to lead to a shift in the dominant riparian vegetation types, as was shown along the Roanoke River in North Carolina (Townsend, 2001). Clearly, impoundments that reduce overall flows (often leading to concomitant lowering of the water table) will induce stress in riparian vegetation, as evidenced by reduced plant abundance and growth rates (see Table 3-1). Furthermore, studies of riparian forests in the northern Great Plains of Canada indicate that cottonwood establishment is dependent upon (1) high flows that precede seed release, (2) flow recession that permits establishment at appropriate streambank elevations, (3) gradual flow decline for seedling survival following the springtime snowmelt peak, and (4) an absence of floods in the following years (Rood et al., 1999). It is not surprising then that substantial declines of riparian forests have been primarily attributed to dams that alter hydrologic disturbance regimes. For example, Rood and Mahoney (1990) found that dams contribute to the loss of riparian forests by reducing downstream flows or by altering flow patterns to attenuate spring flooding or stabilize summer flows. More recently, Friedman et al. (1998) investigated the effects of dams upon channels and riparian forests in the Great Plains of the United States. The principal response of braided channels to an upstream dam was channel-narrowing accompanied by a one-time “burst” of establishment of native and exotic woody riparian pioneer species on the former channel bed. In contrast, the principal response of a meandering channel to an upstream dam was a reduction in the channel migration rate and a decrease in reproduction of woody riparian pioneer species. Dykaar and Wiggington (2000) have similarly concluded that dams, in combination with other factors such as channel rip-rap, streamside logging, and instream gravel mining, have so altered the fluvial-geomorphic regime of the mainstem Willamette River of Oregon that riparian cottonwoods are currently regenerating at a small fraction of historical levels. Table 3-1 summarizes the types of deleterious effects that dams can have on downstream cottonwood forests in western North America. The hypothesized effects of dams on both upstream and downstream reaches are shown in Figure 3-2. Bank-Stabilizing Structures A variety of structures—revetments and rip-rap, gabions, groins, and jetties—have been used to stabilize streambanks. Directly and indirectly, they have influenced the characteristics of riparian areas. Large rock is often placed to provide stability to a streambank and prevent ongoing bank erosion. Such structures may be employed continuously (i.e., along the entire bank) or intermittently along a bank (i.e., at specific locations of concern). An extensive literature survey (Keown et al., 1977) found that the vast majority of published information on

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Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management TABLE 3-1 Impacts of River Damming on Downstream Cottonwood Forests in Western North America Impact River Region Populus Reference Reduced forest or tree abundance Various Arizona P. fremontii, P. angustifolia Brown et al. (1977)   Colorado California P. fremontii Ohmart et al. (1977)   South Platte Colorado P. deltoides Crouch (1979)   Missouri Montana P. deltoides Behan (1981)   Owens California P. fremontii Brothers (1984)   Rush Creek California P. balsamifera Stine et al. (1984)   Milk Alberta/Montana P. deltoides Bradley and Smith (1986)   Bighorn Wyoming P. deltoides Akashi (1988)   St. Mary, Waterton, and Belly Alberta P. deltoides, P. balsamifera, P. angustifolia Rood and Heinze-Milne (1989)   Arkansas Colorado P. deltoides Snyder and Miller (1991) Fewer seedlings or absence of seedlings Missouri North Dakota P. deltoides Johnson et al. (1976) Colorado California P. fremontii Ohmart et al. (1977)   Missouri Montana P. deltoides Behan (1981)   Sacramento California P. fremontii Strahan (1984)   Salt Arizona P. fremontii Fenner et al. (1985)   Rio Grande New Mexico P. fremontii Howe and Knopf (1991) Reduced tree growth, smaller leaves, and reduced transpiration and water potential Missouri North Dakota P. deltoides Johnson et al. (1976) Bishop Creek California P. fremontii, P. balsamifera Smith et al. (1991) Tree growth and survival determined by river flow Bishop Creek California P. fremontii, P. balsamifera Stromberg and Patten (1991)   SOURCE: Adapted from Rood and Mahoney (1991).

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Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management FIGURE 3-2 A schematic of the effects of river regulation via dams. (A) Illustration of a large river showing the major alluvial reaches from the headwaters to the ocean. (Numbers indicate stream order. The figure is not drawn to scale; transition reaches are often much longer than inferred.) (B) Illustration of the same large river after regulation by a high volume, high head-storage dam in the montane transition. (Tributaries downstream from the dam are assumed to be unregulated.) (C) Native biodiversity before (gray) and after (black) regulation. (D) Channel substratum composition before (gray) and after (black) regulation. (Solid lines are boulder and bedrock, broad dashed lines are cobble and gravel, and small dashed lines are sand and silt. The x-axis is the same as in (C).) SOURCE: Reprinted, with permission, from Stanford et al. (1996). © 1996 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management streambank protection methods involve such structural approaches as rip-rap, concrete, dikes, fences, asphalt, gabions, matting, and bulkheads; less than 15 percent of the information was directed towards the use of vegetation. Unlike options utilizing vegetation, structural approaches to streambank stabilization can have deleterious effects on riparian areas (Sedell and Beschta, 1991; Fischenich, 1997). Rip-rap (large rock, pieces of concrete, or other material) remains a common solution for “hardening” a streambank or shoreline in an effort to stem erosion. It is also utilized to stabilize streambanks in the vicinity of bridge abutments, culvert installations, or other features in need of special protection from erosion during high flows. Rarely are the ecological impacts of such projects considered, either for individual projects or cumulatively where multiple projects are implemented. Rip-rap affects the riparian habitat directly by eliminating microhabitats of plant species that naturally stabilize banks. The large pore sizes typically associated with rip-rap treatments seldom contain soil and thus create poor substrates for plant establishment and growth. In addition, because many bank structures reduce the hydraulic roughness (i.e., the frictional resistance to flow) along the channel margins, flow velocities are greater along the bank during high flows, which often precludes the survival of many riparian plant species. With the loss of riparian vegetation brought about by structural modification of a streambank, important contributions of that vegetation to the aquatic ecosystem (e.g., shading, leaf fall, structural integrity from roots, nutrient inputs) are

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Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management reduced, as are its functions as habitat for animals that commonly use streambanks and shorelines. Rip-rap can impede movement of animals that use streambanks and shorelines as migration corridors and destroy nesting areas, as has been documented for the wood turtle (Buech, 1992). Avifaunal studies along the Colorado River showed that, on average, the number of species inhabiting a riprapped riparian area was only about half that of an undisturbed river with intact riparian vegetation (Ohmart and Anderson, 1978). In some cases, the use of rip-rap can have a deleterious effect on water quality. For example, runoff channels constructed of rip-rap or impervious materials can shunt water from roadways, other impermeable surfaces, or erosionprone areas directly into nearby streams and rivers. Such warmed and often pollutant-laden water enters the river without the benefit of having been filtered by vegetation or soil of the riparian area. Channelization Channelization converts streams into deeper, straighter, and often wider waterbodies, making fundamental geomorphic and hydrologic transformations that would not occur under natural conditions. The most common purpose of channelization of small streams is to facilitate conveyance of water downstream so that the immediate floodplain area will not flood as long or as deeply, resulting in reduced soil water content. Channelization is widespread throughout the United

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