Sediment supply provides a fundamental control on the morphology of river deltas, and humans have significantly modified these supplies for centuries. Here we examine the effects of almost a century of sediment supply reduction from the damming of the Elwha River in Washington on shoreline position and beach morphology of its wave-dominated delta. The mean rate of shoreline erosion during 1939-2006 is ~ 0.6??m/yr, which is equivalent to ~ 24,000??m3/yr of sediment divergence in the littoral cell, a rate approximately equal to 25-50% of the littoral-grade sediment trapped by the dams. Semi-annual surveys between 2004 and 2007 show that most erosion occurs during the winter with lower rates of change in the summer. Shoreline change and morphology also differ spatially. Negligible shoreline change has occurred updrift (west) of the river mouth, where the beach is mixed sand to cobble, cuspate, and reflective. The beach downdrift (east) of the river mouth has had significant and persistent erosion, but this beach differs in that it has a reflective foreshore with a dissipative low-tide terrace. Downdrift beach erosion results from foreshore retreat, which broadens the low-tide terrace with time, and the rate of this kind of erosion has increased significantly from ~ 0.8??m/yr during 1939-1990 to ~ 1.4??m/yr during 1990-2006. Erosion rates for the downdrift beach derived from the 2004-2007 topographic surveys vary between 0 and 13??m/yr, with an average of 3.8??m/yr. We note that the low-tide terrace is significantly coarser (mean grain size ~ 100??mm) than the foreshore (mean grain size ~ 30??mm), a pattern contrary to the typical observation of fining low-tide terraces in the region and worldwide. Because this cobble low-tide terrace is created by foreshore erosion, has been steady over intervals of at least years, is predicted to have negligible longshore transport compared to the foreshore portion of the beach, and is inconsistent with oral history of abundant shellfish collections from the low-tide beach, we suggest that it is an armored layer of cobble clasts that are not generally competent in the physical setting of the delta. Thus, the cobble low-tide terrace is very likely a geomorphological feature caused by coastal erosion of a coastal plain and delta, which in turn is related to the impacts of the dams on the Elwha River to sediment fluxes to the coast.
Additional publication details
Beach morphology and change along the mixed grain-size delta of the dammed Elwha River, Washington