1. River regulation and exotic plant invasion threaten riverine ecosystems, and the two often co-occur. By altering water regimes, flow regulation can facilitate plant invasion by providing conditions that directly benefit invading species, or by reducing competition from native species unsuited to the modified conditions. Integrating water and weed management has the potential to limit riparian plant invasion and maximize the ecological benefit of environmental flows.
2. We surveyed plant communities and modelled flood histories of 24 riparian wetlands along the regulated River Murray, south-eastern Australia. There were no suitable control rivers, so we compared modelled pre- and post-regulation hydrological data to quantify hydrological change in the study wetlands. Regression analyses revealed relationships between hydrological modification and cover of native non-weed, native weed and exotic weed groups and 10 individual species.
3. Exotic cover was highest and native non-weed cover lowest in wetlands that had experienced the greatest change in hydrology – a reduction in peak flow. Native weeds did not respond to hydrological modification indicating that exotic species’ success was not reliant on their generalist characteristics.
4. By altering habitat filters, hydrological modification caused a decline in amphibious native non-weed species cover and simultaneously provided drier conditions that directly favoured the exotic species group dominated by terrestrial species. Exotic species were potentially further assisted by human-mediated dispersal.
5. Species and functional diversity was inversely related to exotic cover. By shifting the balance between native and exotic taxa and changing community functional composition, flow regulation may disrupt the ecological function and ecosystem services of floodplain wetlands.
6. Synthesis and applications. Worldwide, flow regulation has led to riverine ecosystems becoming more terrestrial. The success of most introduced plants relies on minimal inundation. In this study, flood magnitude was more important than frequency, timing, or duration for wetland flora because it reflects spatial extent and depth of flooding. Augmenting natural spring floods with environmental flows will kill terrestrial weeds and facilitate native macrophyte growth. Combined with strategies for managing particular amphibious weeds, we recommend flows of 117 000–147 000 ML day−1 for at least 2 days every 10 years for River Murray wetland weed management.