The Copper River Basin, the sixth largest watershed in Alaska, drains an area of 24,200 square miles. This large, glacier-fed river flows across a wide alluvial fan before it enters the Gulf of Alaska. Bridges along the Copper River Highway, which traverses the alluvial fan, have been impacted by channel migration. Due to a major channel change in 2001, Bridge 339 at Mile 36 of the highway has undergone excessive scour, resulting in damage to its abutments and approaches. During the snow- and ice-melt runoff season, which typically extends from mid-May to September, the design discharge for the bridge often is exceeded. The approach channel shifts continuously, and during our study it has shifted back and forth from the left bank to a course along the right bank nearly parallel to the road.
Maintenance at Bridge 339 has been costly and will continue to be so if no action is taken. Possible solutions to the scour and erosion problem include (1) constructing a guide bank to redirect flow, (2) dredging approximately 1,000 feet of channel above the bridge to align flow perpendicular to the bridge, and (3) extending the bridge. The USGS Multi-Dimensional Surface Water Modeling System (MD_SWMS) was used to assess these possible solutions. The major limitation of modeling these scenarios was the inability to predict ongoing channel migration. We used a hybrid dataset of surveyed and synthetic bathymetry in the approach channel, which provided the best approximation of this dynamic system. Under existing conditions and at the highest measured discharge and stage of 32,500 ft3/s and 51.08 ft, respectively, the velocities and shear stresses simulated by MD_SWMS indicate scour and erosion will continue. Construction of a 250-foot-long guide bank would not improve conditions because it is not long enough. Dredging a channel upstream of Bridge 339 would help align the flow perpendicular to Bridge 339, but because of the mobility of the channel bed, the dredged channel would likely fill in during high flows. Extending Bridge 339 would accommodate higher discharges and re-align flow to the bridge.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Application of the Multi-Dimensional Surface Water Modeling System at Bridge 339, Copper River Highway, Alaska