Quantifying and forecasting changes in the areal extent of river valley sediment in response to altered hydrology and land cover


In river valleys, sediment moves between active river channels, near-channel deposits including bars and floodplains, and upland environments such as terraces and aeolian dunefields. Sediment availability is a prerequisite for the sustained transfer of material between these areas, and for the eco-geomorphic functioning of river networks in general. However, the difficulty of monitoring sediment availability and movement at the reach or corridor scale has hindered our ability to quantify and forecast the response of sediment transfer to hydrologic or land cover alterations. Here we leverage spatiotemporally extensive datasets quantifying sediment areal coverage along a 28 km reach of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, southwestern USA. In concert with information on hydrologic alteration and vegetation encroachment resulting from the operation of Glen Canyon Dam (constructed in 1963) upstream of our study reach, we model the relative and combined influence of changes in (a) flow and (b) riparian vegetation extent on the areal extent of sediment available for transport in the river valley over the period from 1921 to 2016. In addition, we use projections of future streamflow and vegetation encroachment to forecast sediment availability over the 20 year period from 2016 to 2036. We find that hydrologic alteration has reduced the areal extent of bare sediment by 9% from the pre- to post-dam periods, whereas vegetation encroachment further reduced bare sediment extent by 45%. Over the next 20 years, the extent of bare sediment is forecast to be reduced by an additional 12%. Our results demonstrate the impact of river regulation, specifically the loss of annual low flows and associated vegetation encroachment, on reducing the sediment available for transfer within river valleys. This work provides an extendable framework for using high-resolution data on streamflow and land cover to assess and forecast the impact of watershed perturbation (e.g. river regulation, land cover shifts, climate change) on sediment connectivity at the corridor scale.

In Progress in Physical Geography: Earth and Environment

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Alan Kasprak
Alan Kasprak
Assistant Professor of Geoscience

I study how rivers work, how we affect them, and the ways that we can restore their physical and ecological processes.