1. Flow dynamics is a major determinant of riparian plant communities. Therefore, flow regulation may heavily affect riparian ecosystems. Despite the large number of dams worldwide, little specific information is available on the longitudinal impacts of dams on vegetation, for example how far downstream and at what degree of regulation a dam on a river can influence riparian woodlands.
2. We quantified the long-term responses of riparian trees and shrubs to flow regulation by identifying their lateral distribution and habitat conditions along a boreal river in northern Sweden that has been regulated by a single dam since 1948. The regulation has reduced annual flow fluctuations, this effect being largest at the dam, downstream from which it progressively decreases following the entrance of free-flowing tributaries.
3. We related changes in the distribution patterns, composition, abundance and richness of tree and shrub species to the degree of regulation along the river downstream from the dam. Regulation has triggered establishment of trees and shrubs closer to the channel, making it possible to measure ecological impacts of flow regulation as differences in vegetation attributes relative to the positions of tree and shrub communities established before and after regulation.
4. Trees and shrubs had migrated towards the mid-channel along the entire study reach, but the changes were largest immediately downstream of the dam. Shrubs were most impacted by flow regulation in terms of lateral movement, but the effect on trees extended furthest downstream.
5. The species composition of trees progressively returned to its pre-regulation state with distance downstream, but entrance of free-flowing tributaries and variation in channel morphology and substratum caused local deviations. Species richness after regulation increased for trees but decreased for shrubs. The changes in species composition and richness of trees and shrubs showed no clear downstream patterns, suggesting that other factors than the degree of regulation were more important in governing life form.