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  1. Abstract

    The capacity for floodplains to capture sediment and filter pollutants is spatially variable and depends on the complex interactions of geomorphic, geologic, and hydrologic variables that operate at multiple scales. In this study, we integrated watershed‐scale and local assessments to improve our understanding of floodplain depositional patterns. We developed a dataset of event‐scale observations of sediment and phosphorus deposition rates distributed at 129 plots across large environmental gradients of floodplain topography, valley geometry, and watershed characteristics in the Lake Champlain Basin, Vermont. Plot‐scale observations were used to evaluate the cross‐scale influence of environmental factors and were summarized into site‐scale averages to explore regional trends. Consistent with other studies, floodplain deposition generally scaled with drainage area, but trends were longitudinally discontinuous and depended on variations in valley width and slope. While variability in deposition patterns at the watershed‐scale was large (average of 2.0 (0.2–9.8) kg sediment m−2 yr−1; average of 1.4 (0.2–6.5) g phosphorus m−2 yr−1), the range in deposition rates locally across a floodplain was greater (average of 4.6 (0.06–21.7) kg sediment m−2 yr−1; average of 6.4 (0.1–41.1) g phosphorus m−2 yr−1). Local variables that described the proximity to water and sediment sources, and frequency with which the plot was activated by a flood, had the greatest relative contribution to boosted regression tree models of phosphorus deposition rates, highlighting the importance of river–floodplain connectivity for floodplain functioning and the profound impact of human activities that limit such connectivity. Patterns identified in our study may guide prioritization of restoration and conservation practices designed to capture sediment and phosphorus on floodplains.

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  2. Abstract

    Centuries of human development have altered the connectivity of rivers, adversely impacting ecosystems and the services they provide. Significant investments in natural resource projects are made annually with the goal of restoring function to degraded rivers and floodplains and protecting freshwater resources. Yet restoration projects often fall short of their objectives, in part due to the lack of systems‐based strategic planning. To evaluate channel‐floodplain (dis)connectivity and erosion/incision hazard at the basin scale, we calculate Specific Stream Power (SSP), an estimate of the energy of a river, using a topographically based, low‐complexity hydraulic model. Other basin‐wide SSP modeling approaches neglect reach‐specific geometric information embedded in Digital Elevation Models. Our approach leverages this information to generate reach‐specific SSP‐flow curves. We extract measures from these curves that describe (dis)connected floodwater storage capacity and erosion hazard at individual design storm flood stages and demonstrate how these measures may be used to identify watershed‐scale patterns in connectivity. We show proof‐of‐concept using 25 reaches in the Mad River watershed in central Vermont and demonstrate that the SSP results have acceptable agreement with a well‐calibrated process‐based model (2D Hydraulic Engineering Center's River Analysis System) across a broad range of design events. While systems‐based planning of regional restoration and conservation activities has been limited, largely due to computational and human resource requirements, measures derived from low‐complexity models can provide an overview of reach‐scale conditions at the regional level and aid planners in identifying areas for further restoration and/or conservation assessments.

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  3. Abstract

    The strength of interactions between plants and river processes is mediated by plant traits and fluvial conditions, including above‐ground biomass, stem density and flexibility, channel and bed‐material properties, and flow and sediment regimes. In many rivers, concurrent changes in (1) the composition of riparian vegetation communities as a result of exotic species invasion and (2) shifts in hydrology have altered physical and ecological conditions in a manner that has been mediated by feedbacks between vegetation and morphodynamic processes. We review howTamarix, which has invaded many southwestern US waterways, andPopulusspecies, woody pioneer trees that are native to the region, differentially affect hydraulics, sediment transport, and river morphology. We draw on flume, field, and modelling approaches spanning the individual seedling to river‐corridor scales. In a flume study, we found that differences in the crown morphology, stem density, and flexibility ofTamarixcompared toPopulusinfluenced near‐bed flow velocities in a manner that favoured aggradation associated withTamarix. Similarly, at the patch and corridor scales, observations confirmed increased aggradation with increased vegetation density. Furthermore, long‐term channel adjustments were different forTamarix‐ versusPopulus‐dominated reaches, with faster and greater geomorphic adjustments forTamarix. Collectively, our studies show how plant‐trait differences betweenTamarixandPopulus, from individual seedlings to larger spatial and temporal scales, influence the co‐adjustment of rivers and riparian plant communities. These findings provide a basis for predicting changes in alluvial riverine systems which we conceptualize as a Green New Balance model that considers how channels may adjust to changes in plant traits and community structure, in addition to alterations in flow and sediment supply. We offer suggestions regarding how the Green New Balance can be used in management and invasive species management.

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  4. Abstract

    Environmental flow releases are an effective tool to meet multiple management objectives, including maintaining river conveyance, restoring naturally functioning riparian plant communities, and controlling invasive species. In this context, predicting plant mortality during floods remains a key area of uncertainty for both river managers and ecologists, particularly with respect to how flood hydraulics and sediment dynamics interact with the plants’ own traits to influence their vulnerability to scour and burial.

    To understand these processes better, we conducted flume experiments to quantify different plant species’ vulnerability to flooding across a range of plant sizes, patch densities, and sediment condition (equilibrium transport versus sediment deficit), using sand‐bed rivers in the U.S. southwest as our reference system. We ran 10 experimental floods in a 0.6 m wide flume using live seedlings of cottonwood and tamarisk, which have contrasting morphologies.

    Sediment supply, plant morphology, and patch composition all had significant impacts on plant vulnerability during floods. Floods under sediment deficit conditions, which typically occur downstream of dams, resulted in bed degradation and a 35% greater risk of plant loss compared to equilibrium sediment conditions. Plants in sparse patches dislodged five times more frequently than in dense patches. Tamarisk plants and patches had greater frontal area, larger basal diameter, longer roots, and lower crown position compared to cottonwood across all seedling heights. These traits were associated with a 75% reduction in tamarisk seedlings’ vulnerability to scour compared to cottonwood.

    Synthesis and applications. Tamarisk's greater survivability helps to explain its vigorous establishment and persistence on regulated rivers where flood magnitudes have been reduced. Furthermore, its documented influence on hydraulics, sediment deposition, and scour patterns in flumes is amplified at larger scales in strongly altered river channels where it has broadly invaded. Efforts to remove riparian vegetation using flow releases to maintain open floodways and/or control the spread of non‐native species will need to consider the target plants’ size, density, and species‐specific traits, in addition to the balance of sediment transport capacity and supply in the river system.

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  5. Abstract

    Plants influence river channel topography, but our understanding of the interaction among plants, flow, and sediment is limited, especially when sediment supply is variable. Using laboratory experiments in a recirculating flume with live seedlings in a mobile sand bed, we demonstrate how varying the balance between sediment supply and transport capacity shifts the relationship between plants and bar‐surface topography. Each experimental trial contrasted two sediment conditions, in which initially supply was maintained in equilibrium with transport via sediment recirculation, followed by sediment deficit, in which transport capacity exceeded supply, which was set to zero. For both sediment balances, the topographic response was sensitive to plant size, with larger plants inducing greater aggradation relative to a baseline condition. During sediment equilibrium, the positive relationship between plant size and topographic change also depended on species morphology (multi‐stemmed shrubs versus single‐stemmed plants). Plant morphology effects disappeared when the sediment balance shifted to a deficit, but the presence of plants had a greater impact on the magnitude of change compared to the topographic response under sediment equilibrium. Our results suggest that the interactions among sediment supply, plants, and topography may be strongest on rivers with a balance in sediment supply and transport capacity. Because of the large variability in fluvial sediment supply resulting from natural and anthropogenic influences, these interactions will differ spatially (e.g. longitudinally through a watershed) and at different temporal scales, from single flood events to longer time periods. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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