Theory, methods and tools for determining environmental flows for riparian vegetation: riparian vegetation-flow response guilds


David M. Merritt, National Watershed, Fish and Wildlife Program, Natural Resource Research Center, USDA Forest Service and the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, 2150A Centre Ave, Fort Collins, 80526 CO, U.S.A. E-mail:


1. Riparian vegetation composition, structure and abundance are governed to a large degree by river flow regime and flow-mediated fluvial processes. Streamflow regime exerts selective pressures on riparian vegetation, resulting in adaptations (trait syndromes) to specific flow attributes. Widespread modification of flow regimes by humans has resulted in extensive alteration of riparian vegetation communities. Some of the negative effects of altered flow regimes on vegetation may be reversed by restoring components of the natural flow regime.

2. Models have been developed that quantitatively relate components of the flow regime to attributes of riparian vegetation at the individual, population and community levels. Predictive models range from simple statistical relationships, to more complex stochastic matrix population models and dynamic simulation models. Of the dozens of predictive models reviewed here, most treat one or a few species, have many simplifying assumptions such as stable channel form, and do not specify the time-scale of response. In many cases, these models are very effective in developing alternative streamflow management plans for specific river reaches or segments but are not directly transferable to other rivers or other regions.

3. A primary goal in riparian ecology is to develop general frameworks for prediction of vegetation response to changing environmental conditions. The development of riparian vegetation-flow response guilds offers a framework for transferring information from rivers where flow standards have been developed to maintain desirable vegetation attributes, to rivers with little or no existing information.

4. We propose to organise riparian plants into non-phylogenetic groupings of species with shared traits that are related to components of hydrologic regime: life history, reproductive strategy, morphology, adaptations to fluvial disturbance and adaptations to water availability. Plants from any river or region may be grouped into these guilds and related to hydrologic attributes of a specific class of river using probabilistic response curves.

5. Probabilistic models based on riparian response guilds enable prediction of the likelihood of change in each of the response guilds given projected changes in flow, and facilitate examination of trade-offs and risks associated with various flow management strategies. Riparian response guilds can be decomposed to the species level for individual projects or used to develop flow management guidelines for regional water management plans.