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Urban runoff and stream channel incision interact to influence riparian soils and understory vegetation

Cite this dataset

Solins, Joanna; Cadenasso, Mary (2021). Urban runoff and stream channel incision interact to influence riparian soils and understory vegetation [Dataset]. Dryad.


Riparian soil processes and vegetation are sensitive to water availability. Urbanization can alter riparian water availability by modifying stream flows and stream channel morphology. In cities, runoff from impervious surfaces tends to increase stormflow magnitudes, causing stream channels to incise, or downcut. This change in channel morphology has been linked to lowered water tables and drier conditions in temperate urban riparian zones, leading to shifts in riparian nitrogen (N) cycling and vegetation communities. In Mediterranean climates with distinct wet and dry periods, there is an additional dynamic to consider: runoff from urban water use can cause streams to flow when they would otherwise be dry. This dry-season stream flow could create increased, rather than decreased, water availability in urban riparian zones. However, channel incision may counteract this effect. We asked whether dry-season stream flow interacted with channel incision to influence riparian soil characteristics and understory vegetation along streams in Sacramento, California, which has a Mediterranean climate with an intense summer dry season. At 40 stream reaches that varied by severity of downcutting and presence of dry-season flow, we sampled soils and vegetation on top of stream banks and at the margin of the low-flow channel, an important location for nutrient cycling in dry climates. We measured soil moisture, organic matter, and ∂15N, as well as total and perennial understory vegetation cover. We found that channel characteristics associated with incision limited the influence of dry-season stream flow on soil moisture, and this interaction appears to have lasting effects on soil organic matter and perennial vegetation on bank tops. At the stream margin, channel downcutting was associated with reduced soil organic matter and vegetation cover, while dry-season flow was associated with increased vegetation cover. Values of soil ∂15N pointed to limited hydrologic linkage between stream flows and riparian bank soils along incised streams. Our findings suggest that channel incision could limit the ability of urban riparian ecosystems to mitigate low-flow water quality. However, where streams are not incised in Mediterranean climates, dry-season flows from urban runoff may actually increase riparian productivity and N cycling above historical levels. 

Usage notes

Please see methods and information in the publication and in the ReadMe file.


Garden Club of America, Award: Fellowship in Urban Forestry

USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Award: Hatch project 1013395