Few studies have examined the effects of low flows on stream biota—a paradoxical situation considering the mounting pressure on streams as a result of increased human abstraction. We present a conceptual model describing processes operating in rivers during low flows and argue that such processes reflect both direct effects of reduced flow on benthic invertebrates and indirect effects of enhanced plant growth occurring during such periods. Our model suggests that the longer the duration of low flow, the more the plant community will change and, in turn, the more habitat quality will change, with consequences to benthic invertebrate communities and higher trophic levels. A fundamental part of the model is the recognition of different stream types, based on a habitat-template matrix of resource supply, interflood velocity, and substrate stability during flood events. This habitat template results in 12 stream types, each of which supports specific plant communities that set the antecedent plant conditions prior to a low-flow period. During low flows, hydraulic factors interact with the antecedent plant communities, which undergo specific responses. For example, in low-nutrient streams with gravel substrates and dominated by diatoms, low-flow conditions will cause little or no change to the antecedent plant community because this plant community is structured by top-down grazing pressure. Consequently, benthic invertebrate composition will not change. In contrast, cover and biomass of filamentous green algae in higher-nutrient gravel-bed streams will increase during low-flow events, and this increase will affect habitat suitability for invertebrates over and above those caused solely by hydraulic changes. The greatest changes to invertebrate communities are expected in macrophyte-dominated streams because these plants change instream habitat conditions the most during extended periods of low flow. Therefore, current flow-management techniques must consider the type of plant communities that exist prior to low flows and be cognizant of that fact that these plant communities can have dramatic influences on benthic communities during low-flow periods.
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