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WWRC 92-19
Surface and Groundwater Dynamics Critical to the Maintenance of Subalpine Riparian Wetlands


Interest in riparian area management has increased in the western United States, due largely to the multiple use land management concept that government agencies work under. The complexity of the management problem is increased by the varied and often conflicting demands riparian users have for different, superior quality products, and by the extent that these demands exceed supply.

Riparian zones are frequently graphically depicted as having a definite spatial organization. Vegetation is distributed along a topographic gradient from the wettest sites near the water source to the drier sites most distant from the water source. Although this relationship has been hypothesized, actual identification and quantification of the gradient has not been intensively studied.

Additional questions relate to the nature of the gradient, and the roles of surface water and groundwater in the riparian ecosystem. Do obligate hydrophytes prefer areas adjacent to surface water sources, or is groundwater a more limiting factor? Also, what are the processes that control the surface water/groundwater interface? Agencies and groups involved in the development, management and restoration of wetlands seek answers to questions such as these, attempting to identify and quantify how much of the available water in the arid regions of the west can be appropriated without damaging important wetland resources.

A current question in riparian management concerns the need for instream flows to maintain riparian habitat. The role of periodic out-of-channel events to maintain riparian communities has not been investigated. Also, little research has been conducted to establish relationships between groundwater, surface water and existing riparian communities. This research will begin to address these relationships in one particular altitudinal zone.

The objectives of this research are to: 1.) compare the groundwater regimes of intermittent and perennial stream reaches and test the null hypothesis of equality of groundwater for different surface water flow characteristics; 2. ) compare the groundwater regimes associated with different subalpine plant communities and test the null hypothesis of equal depth-to-groundwater regimes for all communities; and 3.) determine optimal depth-to-groundwater relationships for three subalpine plant species, Deschampsia cespitosa, Carex aquatilus, and Salix planifolia, and express these relationships in a habitat suitability format.

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