Responses of riparian plants to flooding in free-flowing and regulated boreal rivers: an experimental study.

Published online
19 Feb 2003
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Johansson, M. E. & Nilsson, C.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
Nordic Countries & Sweden


The long history of river regulation has resulted in extensively changed ecosystem structures and processes in rivers and their associated environments. This fact, together with changing climatic and hydrological conditions, has increased the need to recover the natural functions of rivers. To develop guidelines for river restoration, comparative ecological experiments at contrasting water-level regimes are needed. We compared growth and survival of transplanted individuals of four riparian plant species (Betula pubescens, Carex acuta, Filipendula ulmaria and Leontodon autumnalis) over 2 years on four free-flowing and four regulated riverbank sites in northern Sweden. The species were chosen as representatives of dominating life forms and species traits on different elevations of the riverbanks. In Betula and Filipendula, mean proportional growth rates were significantly higher at free-flowing sites than at regulated sites, whereas no consistent differences between free-flowing and regulated sites were found in Carex and Leontodon. Differences among species were generally in accordance with natural distribution patterns along riverbank elevation gradients and with experimental evidence on flooding tolerance, although plants of all species survived and even showed positive growth rates on elevations below their natural range of occurrence. Partial least squares regression was used to relate plant performance (growth and survival) to duration, frequency and timing of flooding at the different sites. Flood duration and frequency typically reduced performance in all species and during all time periods, although to various degrees. Flood events early in the experiment determined the outcome to a high degree at all sites. Variables indicating a regulated regime were mostly negatively related to plant performance, whereas free-flowing regime variables were positively related to plant performance. We used two of the regression models generated from our data with an acceptably high predictive power to simulate a hypothetical re-regulation scenario in run-of-river impoundments. With an overall reduction in flooding duration and frequency of 50-75%, plant performance of Filipendula at low riverbank elevations showed predicted increases of approximately 20-30%, levelling off to zero at the highest elevations. Reductions in summer floods represented about one-third to half of this increase. We conclude that for a range of species individual plant performance is clearly reduced on banks of impoundments and storage reservoirs due to changes in the water-level regime. Furthermore, our model simulation suggests that rather substantial reductions of flood duration and frequency are needed to improve plant performance on riverbanks upstream from dams in impounded rivers. River restoration principles should, however, be based on a combination of experimental data on plant performance of individual species and observed long-term changes in plant communities of regulated rivers. Consequently, successful re-regulation schemes in boreal rivers should include both reductions of summer and winter floods as well as re-introduced spring floods.

Key words