Ecological Response to Extreme Flow Events in Streams and Rivers: Implications of Climate Change for Aquatic Biodiversity

C. P. Hawkins
J. J. Vander Laan
S. Dhungel
David G. Tarboton, Utah State University

Invited Abstract GC34B-05 presented at 2014 Fall Meeting, AGU


We used the USEPA's 2008-2009 National Rivers and Streams Assessment (NRSA) data to assess the potential sensitivity of stream biodiversity to both spatial variation in measures of extreme flow and likely changes in extreme flows associated with projected climate change. The NRSA data consisted of macroinvertebrate samples collected at 1313 reference-quality sites. We characterized the hydrologic regimes at each of these sites by developing Random Forest empirical models from long-term (≥ 20 years) daily flow records obtained from 601 gaged USGS stations. These models described spatial variation in 16 flow variables as a function of climate and watershed attributes. Three of the models characterized aspects of extreme flow: the mean number of zero-flow events per year (ZeroDays), the mean number of high-flow events per year (HighDays = number of events per year that exceed the 95th percentile of mean annual flow), and the coefficient of variation of daily flows (CV). We used these models to predict the flow attributes expected at each of the 1313 sites with ecological data. We then built additional Random Forest models that related among-site differences in stream macroinvertebrate taxonomic composition, assemblage richness, and the likelihood of observing individual taxa to the 16 measures of flow regime and other environmental predictors. At the national level, ZeroDays was an important predictor of macroinvertebrate biodiversity: richness declined as ZeroDays increased. A similar pattern was observed when analyses were restricted to lowland and plains streams. For eastern highland streams, HighDays was a better predictor of stream biodiversity than aspects of low flow: richness declined as HighDays increased. For western streams, CV was a better predictor of biodiversity than either ZeroDays or HighDays: biodiversity decreased as CV increased. Empirical models that linked flow attributes to climate change projections imply that flow regime response to climate change will vary nationally with many currently intermittent streams becoming more permanent and many permanent streams becoming more intermittent. Ecological responses to climate change are therefore expected to exhibit similar idiosyncratic patterns with some streams losing biodiversity and other streams gaining biodiversity.