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Fluvial geomorphology, root distribution, and tensile strength of the invasive giant reed, Arundo donax, and its role on stream bank stability in the Santa Clara River, southern California

Juana E. Stover, Edward A. Keller, Tom L. Dudley, Eddy J. Langendoen
Geosciences 2018 v.8 no.304 pp. 304-334
Arundo donax, Salix laevigata, alluvial plains, alluvial soils, bank erosion, floodplains, fluvial soils, indigenous species, interspecific competition, invasive species, perennial grasses, rhizomes, riparian areas, riparian forests, rivers, root systems, rooting, roots, semiarid zones, stream channels, streambank stability, tensile strength, California
Arundo donax (giant reed) is a large, perennial grass that invades semi-arid riparian systems where it competes with native vegetation and modifies channel geomorphology. For the Santa Clara River, CA, changes in channel width and intensity of braiding over several decades are linked in part to high flow events that remove A. donax. Nevertheless, the area of A. donax at the two study sites increased fivefold over a period of 28 years at one site and fourfold over 15 years at the second site. Effects of A. donax on bank stability are compared to those of a common native riparian tree—Salix laevigata (red willow)—at two sites on the banks and floodplain of the Santa Clara River. There is a significant difference of root density of A. donax compared to S. laevigata and the latter has a higher number of roots per unit area at nearly all depths of the soil profile. Tensile root strength for S. laevigata (for roots of 1–6 mm in diameter) is about five times stronger than for A. donax and adds twice the apparent cohesion to weakly cohesive bank materials than does A. donax (8.6 kPa compared to 3.3 kPa, respectively). Modeling of bank stability for banks of variable height suggests that S. laevigata, as compared to A. donax, increases the factor of safety (FS) by ~60% for banks 1 m high, ~55% for banks 2 m high and ~40% for banks 3 m high. For 3 m high banks, the FS for banks with A. donax is <1. This has geomorphic significance because, in the case of A. donax growing near the water line of alluvial banks, the upper 10–20 cm has a hard, resistant near-surface layer overlying more erodible banks just below the near-surface rhizomal layer. Such banks may be easily undercut during high flow events, resulting in overhanging blocks of soil and A. donax that slump and collapse into the active channel, facilitating lateral bank erosion. Therefore, there is a decrease in the lateral stability of channels if the mixed riparian forest is converted to dominance by A. donax.