Succession of aquatic vegetation driven by reduced water-level fluctuations in floodplain lakes.
In recent years, interest has grown in restoring floodplain function of regulated rivers. Successful rehabilitation of riparian systems requires knowledge of how regulation of river flow affects biodiversity and ecosystem function. The effects of changes in the river's low water-level regime on aquatic ecosystems in floodplains has received little attention so far. The aquatic vegetation of 215 floodplain lakes along the Lower Rhine (the Netherlands) was analysed in relation to lake characteristics and lake water-level fluctuations in 1999-2000. Vegetation composition was related to lake morphology and age, cattle access to the shoreline, the amount of time the river was in flood, and lake sediment area exposed at low water level (drawdown). Surprisingly, vegetation composition was correlated more strongly with lake age and occurrence of drawdown than the amount of time the river was in flood. In older lakes, water-level fluctuations are reduced due to an accumulation of clay and silt that 'seals' sediment, preventing drawdown during periods of low river levels. Our results suggest that this clay sealing process is a major driving force for aquatic vegetation succession in floodplain lakes along the Lower Rhine, as succession drives from desiccation-tolerant species (e.g. Chara spp.) in young lakes to desiccation-sensitive species (e.g. Nuphar lutea) in old lakes. Water levels were stable in lakes along a river branch that was impounded below mean flow only. Here, the original low water-level regime has been replaced by an artificial regime with higher water levels than would be expected naturally. Consequently, in these lakes drawdown was rare or absent, and the aquatic macrophyte vegetation was characterized by low species richness and frequent dominance by the invasive species Elodea nuttallii. Synthesis and applications. Our results show that stabilization of river water levels during low flow may negatively affect vegetation composition and succession in floodplain lakes adjacent to these rivers. A management scheme including incidental temporary lowering of the river water level, which results in drawdown of floodplain lakes, would enhance the ecological status of those rivers with stabilized water levels during low flow.