Aim To test the hypothesis that anthropogenic alteration of stream-flow regimes is a key driver of compositional shifts from native to introduced riparian plant species.
Location The arid south-western United States; 24 river reaches in the Gila and Lower Colorado drainage basins of Arizona.
Methods We compared the abundance of three dominant woody riparian taxa (native Populus fremontii and Salix gooddingii, and introduced Tamarix) between river reaches that varied in stream-flow permanence (perennial vs. intermittent), presence or absence of an upstream flow-regulating dam, and presence or absence of municipal effluent as a stream water source.
Results Populus and Salix were the dominant pioneer trees along the reaches with perennial flow and a natural flood regime. In contrast, Tamarix had high abundance (patch area and basal area) along reaches with intermittent stream flows (caused by natural and cultural factors), as well as those with dam-regulated flows.
Main conclusions Stream-flow regimes are strong determinants of riparian vegetation structure, and hydrological alterations can drive dominance shifts to introduced species that have an adaptive suite of traits. Deep alluvial groundwater on intermittent rivers favours the deep-rooted, stress-adapted Tamarix over the shallower-rooted and more competitive Populus and Salix. On flow-regulated rivers, shifts in flood timing favour the reproductively opportunistic Tamarix over Populus and Salix, both of which have narrow germination windows. The prevailing hydrological conditions thus favour a new dominant pioneer species in the riparian corridors of the American Southwest. These results reaffirm the importance of reinstating stream-flow regimes (inclusive of groundwater flows) for re-establishing the native pioneer trees as the dominant forest type.