Strategies for Restoring River Ecosystems: Sources of Variability and Uncertainty in Natural and Managed Systems

6. Sources of Variability in Aquatic Ecosystems: Factors Controlling Biotic Production and Diversity

R. E. Bilby, G. H. Reeves, and C. A. Dolloff

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781888569469.ch6

Abstract.—Productivity and biodiversity of stream and river ecosystems vary at multiple spatial and temporal scales. Spatial variation in productivity of salmonid fishes varies over two orders of magnitude worldwide and shows lesser, but still considerable, variation at the regional and watershed level. Spatial variation in production and diversity is related to variation in physical, chemical, and biological attributes of watersheds and channels. Channel constraint, gradient, and size are key factors in determining productivity and diversity. Constrained reaches generally support different species and lower productivity than lower-gradient, unconstrained channels. Variation in the condition of stream reaches is greatly influenced by disturbances. Severe disturbances fundamentally change the functional and structural properties of stream ecosystems and alter the way in which the surrounding watershed interacts with the stream. Periodic occurrence of disturbances and the process of recovery play a key role in maintaining spatial and temporal variability in stream conditions and thereby contribute to the productivity and diversity of stream biota. Land use by humans alters the frequency and characteristics of disturbances. As a result, human-altered disturbance patterns often homogenize channel conditions across a watershed rather than introducing diversity. Watershed restoration plans need to recognize the role variability and disturbance play in maintaining the productivity and diversity of stream biota. Incorporating this understanding into watershed management and restoration will require scientists, managers, and policy makers to view watersheds at much longer temporal and larger spatial scales than is currently done.