Channel Morphology and Riparian Vegetation Influences on Fluvial Aquatic Habitat

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Virginia Tech

As public awareness of river degradation has grown in recent years, the number of stream restoration activities has increased dramatically. Anthropogenic influences at a range of spatial scales from watershed landuse to riparian vegetation management to local channel morphology can have hierarchical relationships to local (meso- and macro-) in-stream habitat characteristics. This research examined these influences first by examining the influence of complex channel morphology on meso-scale brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) habitat in Shenandoah National Park, VA, and then by examining the combined influence of watershed urbanization and riparian vegetation (100-200 m reaches) on stream temperature.

Moving beyond one-dimensional (1D) averaged representations of fish habitat, this research explored the distribution of two-dimensional (2D) flow complexity metrics at the meso-habitat scale as explanatory variables for brook trout habitat preferences and as potential metrics to evaluate habitat restoration design. Spatial hydraulic complexity metrics, including area-weighted circulation and kinetic energy gradients, were calculated based on 2D depth averaged modeled velocity distributions in two 100-m reaches on the Staunton River. While there were no statistically significant correlations between kinetic energy gradients or area-weighted circulation and fish density, fish density was positively correlated to the percent of the channel dominated by protruding boulders. The structural complexity of areas with protruding boulders create complex flow patterns suggesting that flow complexity plays an important role in available brook trout habitat preferences at the local scale, although the 2D depth averaged model may not have adequately represented this complexity. The 2D distribution of flow characteristics was then investigated further to quantify areas of flow refugia (low velocity shelters) and the relationship between these areas, traditional measures of habitat quality, and fish biomass. Flow complexity in the vicinity of flow obstructions (in this case, boulders) was investigated further using patch classification and landscape ecology metrics.

The relative influence of riparian vegetation on stream temperature (another important habitat characteristic) in urban and nonurban watersheds was investigated in 27 paired forested and nonforested reaches in PA, MD, and DE. Riparian vegetation and watershed-scale urbanization both influence stream temperature, which can have profound impacts on in-stream ecosystems. Generally, increased urbanization and removal of riparian forest influenced maximum stream temperatures resulting in higher maximum summer stream temperatures (up to 1.8°C); however, the influence of riparian forests (at at 100-200 m reach scale) decreased with increasing urbanization. Extreme maximum summer temperatures, which are a concern for aquatic biota, increased in both frequency and duration in urban nonforested reaches relative to forested reaches indicating that the addition of a forested 100-200 m long buffer partially mitigated these temperature extremes even in urban watersheds. Overall, changes to channel morphology and riparian vegetation had measurable local effects on stream habitat (temperature and hydraulic complexity) yet the implications of restoration efforts at the local scale on ecosystem services at a larger (km +) scale requires further study.

aquatic habitat, boulders, mountain streams, 2D hydraulic models, urbanization, stream temperature, riparian vegetation