"The Great Cataract" - Effects of Late Holocene Debris Flows on Lava Falls Rapid, Grand Canyon National National Park, Arizona

Open-File Report 96-460
By: , and 



Lava Falls Rapid is the most formidable reach of whitewater on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon and is one of the most famous rapids in the world. Although the rapid was once thought to be controlled by the remnants of lava dams of Pleistocene age, Lava Falls was created and is maintained by frequent debris flows from Prospect Canyon. We used 232 historical photographs, of which 121 were replicated, and 14C and 3He dating methods to reconstruct the ages and, in some cases, the magnitudes of late Holocene debris flows. We quantified the interaction between Prospect Canyon debris flows and the Colorado River using image processing of the historical photographs. The highest and oldest debris-flow deposits on the debris fan yielded a 3He date of 2.9?0.6 ka (950 BC), which indicates predominately late Holocene aggradation of one of the largest debris fans in Grand Canyon. The deposit, which has a 25-m escarpment caused by river reworking, crossed the Colorado River and raised its base level by 30 m for an indeterminate, although probably short, period. We mapped depositional surfaces of 6 debris flows that occurred after 950 BC. The most recent prehistoric debris flow occurred no more than 500 years ago (AD 1434). From April 1872 to July 1939, no debris flows occurred in Prospect Canyon. Debris flows in 1939, 1954, 1955, 1963, 1966, and 1995 constricted the Colorado River between 35 and 80 percent and completely changed the pattern of flow through the rapid. The debris flows had discharges estimated between about 290 and 1,000 m3/s and transported boulders as heavy as 30 Mg. The recurrence interval of these debris flows, calculated from the volume of the aggraded debris fan, ranged from 35 to 200 yrs. The 1939 debris flow in Prospect Canyon appears to have been the largest debris flow in Grand Canyon during the last 125 years. Debris flows in Prospect Canyon are initiated by streamflow pouring over a 325-m waterfall onto unconsolidated colluvium, a process called the firehose effect. Floods in Prospect Valley above the waterfall are generated during regional winter storms, localized summer thunderstorms, and occasional tropical cyclones. Winter precipitation has increased in the Grand Canyon region since the early 1960s, and the most recent debris flows have occurred during winter storms. Summer rainfall has declined in the same period, decreasing the potential for debris flows in the summer months. The history of river reworking of the Prospect Canyon debris fan illustrates the interrelation between tributary debris fans and mainstem floods in bedrock canyons. Lava Falls Rapid did not change despite Colorado River floods of 8,500 m3/s in 1884 and 6,230 m3/s in 1921. Floods up to 3,540 m3/s that occurred after the historical, pre-dam debris flows removed most of the deposits within 3 years. Releases in 1965 from Glen Canyon Dam that were above powerplant capacity but less than 1,640 m3/s removed most of the debris fan deposited in 1963, and the combination of dam releases and a 1973 flood on the Little Colorado River removed the 1966 aggradation. About 4,800 m3 of the 1995 deposit was reworked on the day of the 1995 debris flow, dam releases of less than 570 m3/s had not reworked the remainder of the aggraded debris fan. Lava Falls Rapid has been the most unstable reach of whitewater in Grand Canyon during the late Holocene and particularly during the last 120 years. Rapids in bedrock canyons controlled by tributary deposition in the main channel are aggradational features that reflect the net effect of tributary-mainstem interactions. Boulders that form the core of rapids in Grand Canyon are essentially immobile by both regulated and unregulated Colorado River flows. Historical operation of Glen Canyon Dam, which was completed in 1963, has reduced the potential for reworking of debris fans, and has accelerated the rate of net aggradation at the mouths of tributary canyons. Because debris fans that formed after 196

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title "The Great Cataract" - Effects of Late Holocene Debris Flows on Lava Falls Rapid, Grand Canyon National National Park, Arizona
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 96-460
DOI 10.3133/ofr96460
Edition -
Year Published 1996
Language ENGLISH
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey,
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 96 p. :ill. (1 col.), maps ;28 cm.