The Role of Eolian Sediment in the Preservation of Archeologic Sites Along the Colorado River Corridor in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Professional Paper 1756




Since the closure of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, the natural hydrologic and sedimentary systems along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon reach have changed substantially (see, for example, Andrews, 1986; Johnson and Carothers, 1987; Webb and others, 1999b; Rubin and others, 2002; Topping and others, 2003; Wright and others, 2005; Hazel and others, 2006b). The dam has reduced the fluvial sediment supply at the upstream boundary of Grand Canyon National Park by about 95 percent. Regulation of river discharge by dam operations has important implications for the storage and redistribution of sediment in the Colorado River corridor. In the absence of floods, sediment is not deposited at elevations that regularly received sediment before dam closure. Riparian vegetation has colonized areas at lower elevations than in predam time when annual floods removed young vegetation (Turner and Karpiscak, 1980). Together, these factors have caused a systemwide decrease in the size and number of subaerially exposed fluvial sand deposits since the 1960s, punctuated by episodic aggradation during the exceptional high-flow intervals in 1983-84, 1996, and 2004 and by sediment input from occasional tributary floods (Beus and others, 1985; Schmidt and Graf, 1987; Kearsley and others, 1994; Hazel and others, 1999; Schmidt and others, 2004; Wright and others, 2005). When the Bureau of Reclamation sponsored the creation of the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies (GCES) research initiative in 1982, research objectives included physical and biologic resources, whereas the effects of dam operations on cultural resources were not addressed (Fairley and others, 1994; Fairley, 2003). In the early 1980s, it was widely believed that because few archeologic sites were preserved within the river's annual-flood zone, cultural features would not be greatly affected by dam operations. Recent studies, however, indicate that alterations in the flow and sediment load of the Colorado River by Glen Canyon Dam operations may affect archeologic sites within the river corridor, even above the annual flood limit (Hereford and others, 1993, Yeatts, 1996, 1997; Thompson and Potochnik, 2000; Draut and others, 2005). (The annual-flood zone is defined here by the mean annual predam flood of 2,410 m3/s; the 'predam flood limit', the highest elevation at which fluvial deposits are present locally, was approximately equivalent to a rare, major flood of 8,500 m3/s; Topping and others, 2003.) Of about 500 archeologic sites documented between Glen Canyon Dam and Separation Canyon (255 river miles), more than 330 are considered to be within the area of potential effect (APE) of dam operations (Fairley and others, 1994; Neal and others, 2000; Fairley, 2005). The APE was designated by the National Park Service (NPS) to include the area below the peak stage of the 1884 flood; though previously believed to have reached 8,490 m3/s, this flood was shown by Topping and others (2003) to have peaked at 5,940 m3/s. Archeologic research and monitoring in Grand Canyon National Park focus increasingly on the potential effects of Glen Canyon Dam operations on the landscape in which these sites exist. Many archeologic sites in or on sedimentary deposits are being eroded, owing to eolian deflation and gully incision (Leap and others, 2000; Neal and others, 2000; Fairley, 2003, 2005). Hereford and others (1993) first suggested that gully incision of sedimentary deposits, and the base level to which small drainage systems respond, were linked to dam operations; they hypothesized that pronounced arroyo incision, which occurs during rainfall runoff, was caused by lowering of the effective base level at the mouths of ephemeral drainages to meet the new postdam elevation of high-flow sediment deposition, about 3 to 4 m below the lowest predam alluvial terraces. Thompson and Potochnik (2000) modified that hypothesis to include the restorative effects of fluvial deposition in the mouths of gullies and ar

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USGS Numbered Series
The Role of Eolian Sediment in the Preservation of Archeologic Sites Along the Colorado River Corridor in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
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Professional Paper
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Geological Survey (U.S.)
Contributing office(s):
Western Coastal and Marine Geology
vi, 71 p.
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