Physiological response to groundwater depth varies among species and with river flow regulation

J. L. Horton, Thomas E Kolb, S. C. Hart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

152 Scopus citations


We investigated the physiological response of two native riparian tree species (Populus fremontii and Salix gooddingii) and one exotic species (Tamarix chinensis to groundwater availability along gradients of depth to groundwater at two rivers in Arizona. Depth to groundwater (DGW) at the dam-regulated Bill Williams River (BWR) was relatively constant and shallow (<4 m). Populus fremontii at BWR did not experience reduced water availability at deeper groundwater depths, as evidenced by high predawn water potential. However, leaf gas exchange of P. fremontii was sensitive to high vapor pressure deficit where surface flow was ephemeral at BWR. Lower predawn water potentials of S. gooddingii at BWR suggested reduced water availability at deeper groundwater depths, but these reductions did not adversely affect net photosynthetic rate. Along the range of depth to groundwater at BWR, all three species suffered little canopy dieback, and dieback was not related to depth to groundwater. Depth to groundwater at the free-flowing Hassayampa River (HRP) was much greater and declined more rapidly in the ephemeral reaches than at BWR. Both P. fremontii and S. gooddingii experienced reduced water availability at deeper groundwater depths at HRP, as evidenced by lower predawn water potential. Both species also experienced reduced leaf gas exchange at deeper groundwater depths. Canopy dieback of all species was higher at HRP than at BWR and increased with increasing DGW, especially when DGW fell below 3m. There was evidence to support branch sacrifice in these three riparian tree species as a means of improving water status in the surviving shoot. However, branch sacrifice was insufficient to prevent mortality in some of the native trees where DGW fell below 3 m at HRP. In contrast to the native species, T. chinensis showed no change in water availability, leaf gas exchange, or canopy dieback with increasing DGW at either river. Leaf gas exchange was lower and dieback was greater for T. chinensis at HRP where depth to groundwater was greater than at BWR, but there was no mortality at either river. Our results show that deep groundwater is more detrimental to the physiological condition of P. fremontii and S. gooddingii than it is to T. chinensis. Also, the pronounced differences in DGW and tree physiological performance between BWR and HRP suggest that dam regulation can increase water availability to mature trees in some desert riparian ecosystems. Finally, our study also provides estimates of the range of DGW that can maintain healthy, mature P. fremontii and S. gooddingii trees.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1046-1059
Number of pages14
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes



  • Groundwater
  • Photosynthesis
  • Populus fremontii
  • Riparian
  • Salix gooddingii
  • Tamarix chinensis
  • Water relations
  • Water stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology

Cite this