Hydropeaking, defined as frequent and rapid variation in flow in regulated rivers with hydropower plants over a short period of time, usually sub-daily to weekly, alters hydraulic parameters such as water levels or flow velocity and exerts strong impacts on fluvial ecosystems. We evaluated the effects of hydropeaking on riverbank vegetation, specifically assessing the germination and establishment of seedlings and cuttings of plant species representing a variation in traits. We used seeds and seedlings and cuttings varying in size as phytometers, and transplanted them to riverbanks both above and below dams used for hydropower production in northern Sweden, selected to represent a gradient in hydropeaking intensity, and along a free-flowing reach. We also analyzed sub-daily water-level variables modified by hydropeaking to identify variables key in explaining the observed vegetation patterns. We found that plant responses to hydropeaking varied with species, with flood-intolerant species being the most strongly affected, as early as the germination stage. In contrast, seeds of flood-tolerant species managed to germinate and survive the early establishment phase, although strong erosive processes triggered by hydropeaking eventually caused most of them to fail. The fate of flood-intolerant species identifies germination as the most critical life-history stage. The depth and frequency of the inundation were the leading variables explaining plant responses, while the duration of shallow inundation explained little of the variation. The rise and fall rates of water levels were key in explaining variation in germination success. Based on the results, we propose restoration measures to enhance establishment of riparian plant communities while minimizing the impact on hydropower electricity production. Given the strong decrease in the germination of species intolerant to prolonged flooding with hydropeaking, planting of seedlings, preferably of large sizes, together with restrictions in the operation of the power plant during the establishment phase to enhance survival would be the best restoration option. Given the high probability of plant uprooting with hydropeaking, bank protection measures have the potential to increase riparian plant survival of all species, including flooding-tolerant species.
Keywords: drag; hydropower plant; inundation; phytometer; riverine vegetation; sub-daily water-level variables; survival.
© 2020 by the Ecological Society of America.