Flows for floodplain forests: Conversion from an intermittent to continuous flow regime enabled riparian woodland development along a prairie river

The Little Bow River (LBR) in western Canada naturally displayed an intermittent flow regime; the channel dried up most summers, excluding the development of riparian woodlands within this semi-arid ecoregion. Around 1900, the Little Bow Canal was excavated to divert water from the adjacent Highwood River and with flow augmentation the LBR flow became continuous through the growth season. We hypothesized that the continuous regime enabled riparian woodland establishment and assessed conditions with sequential aerial photographs and field observations. Supporting the hypothesis, a few woodland groves established near the Highwood River where balsam poplars (Populus balsamifera) provided an abundant seed source. To investigate the basis for woodland development, we analysed historical hydrology of the LBR and assessed the four larger woodland groves, which included mature poplars, trembling aspen (P. tremuloides) and willow shrubs (Salix bebbiana and S. exigua). Each location had some bank excavation with channelization or gravel mining, and tree ageing through ring counts indicated gradual colonization and pulses of establishment after floods in 1920 and 1942. Thus, the conversion from an intermittent to continuous flow regime enabled woodland development which also benefited from excavations that created barren colonization sites. The study revealed four requirements for riparian woodland colonization in a dry region: (a) seeds, (b) barren sites, (c) bank saturation with higher river flow, and (d) sufficient river flows for tree and shrub survival and growth. While water withdrawal commonly degrades riverine ecosystems, flow augmentation can provide the opposite outcome, enhancing the river and riparian environments.

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Field Value
Short Name of Publication conversion-intermittent-continuous-flow-regime-enabled-riparian-woodland-development-prairie-river
Deliverable Type Journal article
Program Catagory
Program Type Provincial
Author Bigelow, SG, Hillman, EJ, Hills, B, Samuelson, GM, Rood, SB.
Periodical Title River Research and Applications
Year of Publication 2020
Publishing Organization
Month of Publication September
Periodical Volumes
Page Range
Digital Object Identifier (DOI) https://doi.org/10.1002/rra.3724
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