1. In semi-arid climates, seasonally-flowing streams provide most of the water required for human use, but knowledge of how water extraction affects ecological processes is limited. Predicted alterations in stream flows associated with the impacts of climate change further emphasize the need to understand these processes. Benthic algae are an important base for stream food webs, but we have little knowledge of how algae survive dry periods or respond to altered flow regimes.
2. We sampled 19 streams within the Grampians National Park, south-eastern Australia and included four components: a survey of different drought refuges (e.g. permanent pools, dry biofilm on stones and dry leaf packs) and associated algal taxa; a survey of algal regrowth on stones after flows recommenced to determine which refuges contributed to regrowth; reciprocal transplant experiments to determine the relative importance of algal drift and regrowth from dry biofilm in recolonization; direct measurement of algal drift to determine taxonomic composition in relation to benthic assemblage composition.
3. Algae showed little specificity for drought refuges but did depend on them; no species were found that were not present in at least one of the perennial pool, dry biofilm or leaf pack refuges. Perennial pools were most closely correlated with the composition of algal assemblages once flows resumed, but the loss or gain of perennial pools that might arise from stream regulation is unlikely to affect the composition of algal regrowth. However, regulated streams were associated with strong increases in algal density in dry biofilm, including increased densities of Cyanobacteria.
4. A model for algal recolonization in seasonally-flowing streams identified three pathways for algal recolonization (drift-dependent, dry biofilm-dependent and contributions from both), depending on whether streams are diatom-dominated or dominated by filamentous algae. The model predicted the effects of changes to stream flow regimes on benthic algal recolonization and provides a basis for hypotheses testable in streams elsewhere.