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Future regulated flows of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon foretell decreased areal extent of sediment and increases in riparian vegetation

Environmental Research Letters
By: , and 

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Abstract

Sediment transfer, or connectivity, by aeolian processes between channel-proximal and upland deposits in river valleys is important for the maintenance of river corridor biophysical characteristics. In regulated river systems, dams control the magnitude and duration of discharge. Alterations to the flow regime driven by dams that increase the inundation duration of sediment, or which drive the encroachment of vegetation into areas formerly composed of labile sediment and result in channel narrowing, may reduce sediment transfer from near-channel deposits to uplands via aeolian processes. Employing spatial methods developed by Kasprak et al (2018 Prog. Phys. Geogr.), here we use data describing the areal extent of bare (i.e. subaerially exposed and non-vegetated) sediment along 168 km of the Colorado River downstream from Glen Canyon Dam in Grand Canyon, USA, in conjunction with inundation extent modeling to forecast how future flows of this highly regulated river will drive changes in the areal extent of sediment available for aeolian transport. We also compare modern bare sediment area to that which presumably would have existed under pre-dam hydrographs. Over the next two decades, the planned flow regime from Glen Canyon Dam will result in slight decreases in bare sediment area (−1%) on an annual scale. This is in contrast to pre-dam years, when unregulated low flows led to marked increases in bare sediment area as compared to the current discharge regime. Our findings also indicate that ~75% of bare sediment in the study reach is inundated continuously at present, owing to increased baseflows in the post-dam flow regime; consequently, any reductions in flows below modern-day low discharges have the potential to expose large areas of bare sediment. We use vegetation modeling to quantify areas susceptible to vegetation encroachment under future flows, finding that 80% of bare sediment area is suitable for colonization by invasive tamarisk under the current flow regime. Our findings imply that the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, a system marked by widespread erosion of sediment resources and encroachment of riparian vegetation in the post-dam period, is likely to continue to see decreasing bare sediment extent over the coming decades in the absence of direct intervention through flow regime modification or widespread vegetation removal.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Future regulated flows of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon foretell decreased areal extent of sediment and increases in riparian vegetation
Series title Environmental Research Letters
DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/abc9e4
Volume 16
Issue 1
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher IOP Science
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 014029, 14 p.
Country United States
State Arizona
Other Geospatial Colorado River
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