Photo of the Week – March 24, 2017

Below are two photos of a creek and associated wetlands taken by a timelapse camera.  The first photo was taken in early June, 2015 and the second photo was taken about a month later.  Looking just at those two photos, you’d think nothing much was happening.

Derr Wetland in early June 2015.

Derr Wetland in early July 2015.

However, now look at the next photo, which was taken in mid-June.  After some rains in early June, the stream swelled and filled much of its floodplain, and that high water lasted a couple weeks before it came back down again.  The photos show how dynamic a stream and its floodplain can (and should) be.

Mid-June 2015.

The area in these photos is a restoration site that was formerly a sand pit lake left behind after gravel mining.  A stream flowed into the narrow lake on one end and out the other, and the lake was surrounded by spoil piles and trees.  After restoration, the site now has a couple stream channels, some adjacent wetlands, and provides wide and open habitat for a diverse number of aquatic and terrestrial animals.  In addition to providing great wildlife habitat and a diverse plant community, though, the restored site also improves the floodplain functionality of this stream.

Flooding is a natural and important process, and floodplains play an essential role in that process.  After big rain events, streams quickly gain water that has to go somewhere.  Ideally, that water spreads out into a floodplain where it slows down and sits until it either drains into the soil or gradually is allowed to proceed downstream.  When we restrict or block access of streams to their floodplains, floodwater is forced downstream in a torrent and sometimes breaks out from its restraints, causing unexpected and often catastrophic damage to property.

The 10 second timelapse video below shows (on a small scale) the kind of gentle rise and fall of water levels a functioning floodplain can facilitate.  The images in the video were taken between June 3 and July 1, 2015.  The water level came up fairly quickly between June 4 and 5, remained high for a couple weeks, and then dropped slowly back to where it had started.  Just like it was supposed to.

(If the above video doesn’t work, try clicking on the title of this blog post to open it in a web browser and then try again.  If that doesn’t work, try just following this link.)

Ice Jam Flooding

As I mentioned last week, recent ice jams on the Platte River caused some flooding in some of our prairies.  I was able to photograph the flooding from a couple perspectives.  On February 5, we got some aerial footage with our drone, and then late last week, I walked through some of the flooded area after most of the water had receded.

This road was closed due to flooding.  Everything to the right (north) of the road is prairie.

This road was closed due to flooding. Everything to the right (north) of the road is prairie.

windmill

Another shot of the same area from higher up.  The river can be seen at the very left edge of the photo.  A windmill can be seen in the prairie near the right edge.

This was and will be an ecologically-interesting event from several standpoints.  Floating ice and ice jams have been an important component of the Platte River ecosystem for a very long time.  Ice likely played a critical historic role by helping to scour vegetation from sandbars, allowing that sediment to be carried off and deposited elsewhere, and creating valuable habitat for many species – including the ducks, geese, cranes, and other water birds that pass through during migration.  Today, we see much less of that scouring and many sandbar islands and banks have become relatively permanent and covered by trees and other perennial vegetation.

river channels

River water flowing through prairie.  Most Platte River floodplain prairies still have their river-formed topography of sloughs (old river channels) and ridges (old sandbars).  During the flood, many of those sloughs became active (albeit temporary) river channels again.

Before the Platte River’s channels were stabilized and restricted to their current locations by human activity, ice jam flooding might have been an important driver of the shifting of channel locations over time as well.  This year’s flood created new river channels through floodplain prairies and woodland, but as the water receded, it returned to its stabilized channels.  Historically, the river was a broad series of braided channels, and flood events would have changed the shape and location of those channels frequently – though I don’t know how important ice jams were relative to annual high flows from Rocky Mountain meltwater.

I have a few predictions about how this year’s flood will impact prairies, but they are just educated guesses….

The grasslands that were covered by water for a few weeks will get a boost in their soil moisture for this upcoming season.  We’ve had a relatively dry winter, so that soil moisture should create some very different growing conditions for plants in flooded versus non-flooded prairies.  Depending upon a number of variables, flooded areas might also retain more standing water in sloughs, creating valuable habitat for many wildlife species.

fences

Floodwaters carried grass and other debris into fences and pushed them right over.

The flooding carried more than just large chunks of ice out of the river and through the prairies.  It also picked up and carried downed trees and branches, along with other assorted buoyant objects, natural and man-made.  In addition, the ice and water scraped vegetation from some places and deposited it elsewhere.  We burned a portion of prairie last year and left it ungrazed as a seed harvest site, so it was covered in tall big bluestem and other grasses.  The ice essentially shaved some of that area as it came through, scraping away most of the standing vegetation and leaving behind a site that now looks as if it had been intensively grazed.  That shaved off grass was deposited further downstream along obstacles (such as fences) and in high spots as the water levels dropped.  As a result, some areas of prairie are now covered by a foot or so of fairly dense thatch.  It will be fun to watch how that thatch affects vegetative growth and wildlife use.

shaved

This area was burned last spring and ungrazed.  Before the flood, it was a stand of tall dense big bluestem and other tall grasses.  The ice and water essentially shaved the tall stems and leaves off and carried them away.

This Canada goose appeared to view the

This Canada goose decoy appeared to view its new surroundings with equanimity (look it up, Dillon) after being deposited by receding flood waters.

this

A second decoy looked a little less at ease.

thattch

This layer of flood-deposited thatch is about a foot thick.  It will be interesting to see what impact it has on vegetation beneath it.

I’m guessing most of the impacts of this flood will be positive, or at least interesting, from a land management standpoint.  One exception is that we’ll have some fairly major fence repair to do this spring.  A bigger concern is a potential influx of invasive plants carried in to our prairies as seed or vegetative material from the river.  Phragmites, reed canarygrass, and purple loosestrife are probably the most likely and potentially serious invaders, but others such as Canada thistle, salt cedar, and Russian olive are also possible.  We’ll need to be vigilant over the next few seasons to make sure we catch new populations of those invaders before they can become well-established.

This ice

Ice fields like this make it difficult to travel across the prairie and get a full picture of what was flooded and what wasn’t.

Once the remaining ice melts away,  we’ll get out and explore more of our flooded areas.  After we have mapped out (at least generally) the boundaries of the flooded areas, we’ll watch and evaluate what impacts the ice and water actually have on the prairie this season and beyond.

And then we’ll  see how good my predictions are…