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Not All Rivers Are Created Equal: The Importance of Spring-Fed Rivers under a Changing Climate

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In the Western United States, volcanic spring-fed rivers are anticipated to become increas-ingly more important for salmonids and other native fishes, as these rivers will retain coldwater habitats as the climate warms. Despite this, little is known about the hydro-biogeochemical interactions within these ecosystems. A review of existing literature on spring-fed rivers, coupled with a decade of research on volcanic spring-fed rivers of northern California, finds that these systems are exceptionally productive and exhibit stable environmental conditions. These unique conditions stem from hydrogeologic processes typical of young volcanic terrains. Aquatic macrophytes, com-mon to some nutrient-rich spring-fed systems, play a disproportionate role in hydrologic and geo-morphic processes by facilitating ecological interactions and velocity conditions that improve juvenile salmonid growth. We find that volcanic spring-fed rivers are also resilient to climate change, due not only to their ability to dampen water temperature changes through deep groundwater flow but also because of their nutrient-driven high ecosystem productivity, which may enable coldwater species to metabolically compensate for marginal increases in water temperature. Understanding the fundamental geomorphic and ecological differences between these rare ecosystems and their numerically dominant runoff rivers is essential for developing long-term conservation strategies for coldwater species under a rapidly changing climate.

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