1. The structure of biological communities reflects the influence of both local environmental conditions and processes such as dispersal that create patterns in species’ distribution across a region.
2. We extend explicit tests of the relative importance of local environmental conditions and regional spatial processes to aquatic plants, a group traditionally thought to be little limited by dispersal. We used partial canonical correspondence analysis and partial Mantel tests to analyse data from 98 lakes and ponds across Connecticut (northeastern United States).
3. We found that aquatic plant community structure reflects the influence of local conditions (pH, conductivity, water clarity, lake area, maximum depth) as well as regional processes.
4. Only 27% of variation in a presence/absence matrix was explained by environmental conditions and spatial processes such as dispersal. Of the total explained, 45% was related to environmental conditions and 40% to spatial processes.
5. Jaccard similarity declined with Euclidean distance between lakes, even after accounting for the increasing difference in environmental conditions, suggesting that dispersal limitation may influence community composition in the region.
6. The distribution of distances among lakes where species occurred was associated with dispersal-related functional traits, providing additional evidence that dispersal ability varies among species in ways that affect community composition.
7. Although environmental and spatial variables explained a significant amount of variation in community structure, a substantial amount of stochasticity also affects these communities, probably associated with unpredictable colonisation and persistence of the plants.