Two diverse fluvial systems show that with time, channels adjust such that the rate of energy dissipation is minimized. One fluvial system, characterized by high relief and coarse-grained sediment, was subjected to an explosive volcanic eruption; the other system, characterized by low relief and fine-grained sediment, was subjected to dredging and straightening. Study of the expenditure of kinetic- and potential-energy components of total-mechanical energy provide an energy-based rationale of the interdependency between processes and forms during channel evolution. Spatial and temporal trends of aggradation and degradation are similar although relative amounts of aggradation in the high-energy system are greatly enhanced by the deposition of large amounts of eroded bank material from upstream reaches. Degradation accompanied by widening is the most efficient means of energy dissipation because all components of total-mechanical energy decrease with time. Widening dominates energy dissipation in the coarse-grained system to offset increases in hydraulic depth caused by incision. In the low-energy fine-grained system, channel adjustment and energy dissipation are dominated by vertical processes because of low relative values of kinetic energy, and because eroded bank sediment is transported out of the drainage basin and does not aid in downstream aggradation, energy dissipation, or channel recovery.
Specific energy is shown to decrease nonlinearly with time during channel evolution and provides a measure of reductions in available energy at the channel bed. Data from two sites show convergence towards a minimum specific energy with time. Time-dependent reductions in specific energy at a point act in concert with minimization of the rate of energy dissipation over a reach during channel evolution as the fluvial systems adjust to a new equilibrium.