In-channel geomorphic complexity: The key to the dynamics of organic matter in large dryland rivers?
Large rivers are often considered to retain less organic material than smaller streams primarily because of a decrease in retentive structures. From our observations on the Barwon-Darling River, a semi-arid river in southeastern Australia, we suggest that geomorphic complexity plays a fundamental role in the retention of organic matter. The Barwon-Darling River has a 'complex' river channel cross-section with large inset benches being a prominent morphological feature within the channel. The importance of geomorphic complexity for retaining organic material is likely to be significant in dryland rivers. These rivers spend extended periods at low flow with infrequent large floods that inundate the floodplain. They do, however, experience more frequent within channel floods that inundate in-channel 'bench' features. In-channel geomorphic complexity and its ability to retain organic material, therefore, means that although the dominant lateral movements of organic material will still occur during large overbank flows, smaller 'pulse' inputs will occur with each in-channel rise and fall in water level. In dryland rivers, where large overbank flows may only occur every seven or more years, these small 'pulse' inputs of organic material may well be vital for the integrity of the system. This paper describes the contemporary complexity of a channel in a regulated and an unregulated reach of the Barwon-Darling and compares this with cross-sections surveyed in 1886. We show that flow regulation has greatly reduced channel complexity. We estimate the potential organic matter input to each bench level within the channel (using data collected under near natural riparian conditions) and measure the contemporary organic loads within the channel of the regulated and unregulated reach. This modelling suggests that the development of water resources has reduced the complexity of the channel in the regulated reach, resulting in a potential decrease in the retention of organic matter in this region of the river. The importance of this organic matter to the aquatic food web of the Barwon-Darling River is also demonstrated.