Legacies of Stream Channel Modification Revealed Using General Land Office Surveys, with Implications for Water Temperature and Aquatic Life
Land use legacies can have a discernible influence in present-day watersheds and should be accounted for when designing conservation strategies for riverine aquatic life. We describe the environmental history of three watersheds within the Grande Ronde subbasin of the Columbia River using General Land Office survey field notes from the 19th century. In the two watersheds severely impacted by Euro-American land use, stream channel widths—a metric representing habitat simplification—increased from an average historical width of 16.8 m to an average present width of 20.8 m in large streams; 4.3 m to 5.5 m in small, confined or partly confined streams; and 3.5 m to 6.5 m in small, laterally unconfined steams. Conversely, we did not detect significant change in stream widths in an adjacent, wilderness stream with minimal human impact. Using a mechanistic water temperature model and restoration scenarios based on the historical condition, we predicted that stream restoration in the impacted watersheds could notably decrease average water temperatures—especially when channel narrowing is coupled with riparian restoration—up to a 6.6°C reduction in the upper Grande Ronde River and 3.0°C in Catherine Creek. These reductions in water temperature translated to substantial changes in the percentage of stream network habitable to salmon and steelhead migration (from 29% in the present condition to 79% in the fully restored scenario) and to core juvenile rearing (from 13% in the present condition to 36% in the fully restored scenario). We conclude that land use legacies leave an important footprint on the present landscape and are critical for understanding historic habitat-forming processes as a necessary first step towards restoration.
White, S.M., C. Justice, D.A. Kelsey, D.A. McCullough, and T. Smith. 2017. Legacies of stream channel modification revealed using General Land Office surveys, with implications for water temperature and aquatic life. Elementa Science of the Anthropocene 5(3):1-18. Online at https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.192.