Resilience of riparian vegetation productivity to early 21st century drought in northern California, USA

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Drought and intensive land use can interact as stressors on riparian vegetation, especially along rivers flowing through seasonally dry landscapes. Knowledge of past riparian vegetation response to drought and land use change can provide land managers with a better understanding of changes induced by upstream management actions, climate change, and chronic stressors. To investigate the response of riparian vegetation productivity to drought and land use, we developed a 21-year time series (2000–2020) of growing season vegetation dynamics using near-infrared reflectance of vegetation (NIRV) derived from satellite data across 30 watershed subbasins that drain into the San Francisco Bay Delta in central California, USA. We observed a strong response of riparian vegetation to drought, but rapid recovery and very few long-term declines in productivity. At a local level, vegetation communities' response to drought and post-drought productivity dynamics were highly variable across biophysical settings and land use gradients. Most of the riparian areas with long-term declines in NIRV were located in the lower elevation Coast Range on the western side of the study area where there is little to no water engineering or agricultural irrigation runoff to subsidize riparian vegetation. Riparian areas with the greatest long-term increase were along rivers draining the higher elevation Sierra Nevada range to the east. Our results suggest that river systems with a high proportion of water originating as snowmelt may be more buffered against long-term drought-driven declines in productivity than those dependent exclusively on winter rainfall. The long-term increase in NIRV in the vast majority of riparian areas within our study area may also have been driven in part by increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which have been shown to increase plant water use efficiency.




Selmants, P. C., Conrad, C. R., Wilson, T. S., & Villarreal, M. L. (2023). Resilience of riparian vegetation productivity to early 21st century drought in northern California, USA. Ecosphere, 14(8).

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