The natural flow regime (i.e. magnitude, frequency, duration, timing and rate of change of flow events) is crucial for maintaining freshwater biodiversity and ecosystem services. Protecting instream flow from anthropogenic alterations first requires an understanding of the relationship between aquatic organisms and the flow regime. In this study, we used a unique framework based on random forest modeling to quantify effects of natural flow regime metrics on fish and macroinvertebrate assemblages across ecoregions and flow regime types in the state of South Carolina, USA. We found that all components of the natural flow regime affected both fish and benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages, suggesting that maintaining natural aspects of all flow regime components is critical for protecting freshwater diversity. We identified hydrologic metrics and flow regime components such as magnitude, frequency, and duration of flow events, that were associated with the greatest ecological responses for individual stream classes to help managers prioritize hydrologic and biological metrics of interest during environmental flow standard development. The response of aquatic organisms to hydrologic metrics varied across stream classifications and ecoregions, highlighting the importance of accounting for differences in flow regime and ecoregion when designing environmental flow standards. We provide a flexible framework based on statistical flow-ecology relationships that can be used to inform instream flow management and assess effects of flow alteration on riverine assemblages.
Quantifying flow–ecology relationships across flow regime class and ecoregions in South Carolina