Long-term Water Table Monitoring of Rio Grande Riparian Ecosystems for Restoration Potential Amid Hydroclimatic Challenges

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Journal Article
Environmental Management, 2017, 60 (6), pp. 1101 - 1115
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10.1007%2Fs00267-017-0945-x.pdfPublished Version1.82 MB
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© 2017, Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. Hydrological processes drive the ecological functioning and sustainability of cottonwood-dominated riparian ecosystems in the arid southwestern USA. Snowmelt runoff elevates groundwater levels and inundates floodplains, which promotes cottonwood germination. Once established, these phreatophytes rely on accessible water tables (WTs). In New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande corridor diminished flooding and deepening WTs threaten native riparian communities. We monitored surface flows and riparian WTs for up to 14 years, which revealed that WTs and surface flows, including peak snowmelt discharge, respond to basin climate conditions and resource management. WT hydrographs influence the composition of riparian communities and can be used to assess if potential restoration sites meet native vegetation tolerances for WT depths, rates of recession, and variability throughout their life stages. WTs were highly variable in some sites, which can preclude native vegetation less adapted to deep drawdowns during extended droughts. Rates of WT recession varied between sites and should be assessed in regard to recruitment potential. Locations with relatively shallow WTs and limited variability are likely to be more viable for successful restoration. Suitable sites have diminished greatly as the once meandering Rio Grande has been constrained and depleted. Increasing demands on water and the presence of invasive vegetation better adapted to the altered hydrologic regime further impact native riparian communities. Long-term monitoring over a range of sites and hydroclimatic extremes reveals attributes that can be evaluated for restoration potential.
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