A large-scale environmental flow experiment for riparian restoration in the Colorado River Delta

Patrick B. Shafroth, Karen J. Schlatter, Martha Gomez-Sapiens, Erick Lundgren, Matthew R. Grabau, Jorge Ramírez-Hernández, J. Eliana Rodríguez-Burgueño, Karl W. Flessa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Managing streamflow is a widely-advocated approach to provide conditions necessary for seed germination and seedling establishment of trees in the willow family (Salicaceae). Experimental flow releases to the Colorado River delta in 2014 had a primary objective of promoting seedling establishment of Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and Goodding's willow (Salix gooddingii). We assessed seed germination and seedling establishment of these taxa as well as the non-native tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) and native seepwillow shrubs (Baccharis spp.) in the context of seedling requirements and active land management (land grading, vegetation removal) at 23 study sites along 87 river km. In the absence of associated active land management, experimental flows to the Colorado River delta were minimally successful at promoting establishment of new woody riparian seedlings, except for non-native Tamarix. Our results suggest that the primary factors contributing to low seedling establishment varied across space, but included low or no seed availability in some locations for some taxa, insufficient soil moisture availability during the growing season indicated by deep groundwater tables, and competition from adjacent vegetation (and, conversely, availability of bare ground). Active land management to create bare ground and favorable land grades contributed to significantly higher rates of Salicaceae seedling establishment in a river reach with high groundwater tables. Our results provide insights that can inform future environmental flow deliveries to the Colorado River delta and its ecosystems and other similar efforts to restore Salicaceae taxa around the world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)645-660
Number of pages16
JournalEcological Engineering
StatePublished - Sep 2017


  • Ecological flow
  • Populus
  • Pulse flow
  • Salix
  • Seedling establishment
  • Streamflow experiment
  • Tamarix

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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