We examine the impacts of a stand-clearing wildfire on the characteristics and magnitude of suspended sediment transport in ephemeral streams draining the burn area. We report the results of a monitoring program that includes 2 years of data prior to the Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico, and 3 years of postfire data. Suspended sediment concentration (SSC) increased by about 2 orders of magnitude following the fire, and the proportion of silt and clay increased from 50% to 80%. For a given flow event, SSC is highest at the flood bore and decreases monotonically with time, a pattern evident in every flood sampled both before and after the fire. We propose that the accumulation of flow and wash load at the flow front is an inherent characteristic of ephemeral stream flows, due to amplified momentum losses at the flood bore. We present a new model for computing suspended sediment transport in ephemeral streams (in the presence or absence of wildfire) by relating SSC to the time following the arrival of the flood bore, rather than to instantaneous discharge. Using this model and a rainfall history, we estimate that in the 3 years following the fire, floods transported in suspension a mass equivalent to about 3 mm of landscape lowering across the burn area, 20% of this following a single rainstorm. We test the model by computing fine sediment delivery to a small reservoir in an adjacent watershed, where we have a detailed record of postfire sedimentation based on repeat surveys. Systematic discrepancies between modeled and measured sedimentation rates in the reservoir suggest rapid reductions in suspended sediment delivery in the first several years after the fire.
Additional publication details
Suspended sediment transport in an ephemeral stream following wildfire