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Flows for floodplain forests: A successful riparian restoration

Publication Type:

Journal Article


BIOSCIENCE, Volume 53, Issue 7, p.647-656 (2003)


Throughout the 20th century, the Truckee River that flows from Lake Tahoe into the Nevada desert was progressively dammed and dewatered, which led to the collapse of its aquatic and riparian ecosystems. The federal designation of the endemic cui-ui sucker (Chasmistes cujus) as endangered prompted a restoration program in the 1980s aimed at increasing spring flows to permit fish spawning. These flows did promote cui-ui reproduction, as well as an unanticipated benefit, the extensive seedling recruitment of Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and sandbar willow (Salix exigua). Recruitment was scattered in 1983 but extensive in 1987, when the hydrograph satisfied the riparian recruitment box model that had been developed for other rivers. That model was subsequently applied to develop flow prescriptions that were implemented from 1995 through 2000 and enabled further seedling establishment. The woodland recovery produced broad ecosystem benefits, as evidenced by the return by 1998 of 10 of 19 riparian bird species whose populations had been locally extirpated or had declined severely between 1868 and 1980. The dramatic partial recovery along this severely degraded desert river offers promise that the use of instream flow regulation can promote ecosystem restoration along other dammed rivers worldwide.