The Copper River Highway traverses a dynamic and complex network of braided and readily erodible channels that constitute the Copper River Delta, Alaska, by way of 11 bridges. Over the past decade, several of these bridges and the highway have sustained serious damage from both high and low flows and channel instability. This investigation studying the impact of channel migration on the highway incorporates data from scour monitoring, lidar surveys, bathymetry, hydrology, and time-lapse photography.
The distribution of the Copper River's discharge through the bridges was relatively stable until sometime between 1969-70 and 1982-85. The majority of the total Copper River discharge in 1969-70 passed through three bridges on the western side of the delta, but by 1982-1985, 25 to 62 percent of the flow passed through bridge 342 on the eastern side of the Copper River Delta. In 2004, only 8 percent of the flow passed through the western bridges, while 90 percent of the discharge flowed through two bridges on the eastern side of the delta. Migration of the river across the delta and redistribution of discharge has resulted in streambed scour at some bridges, overtopping of the road during high flows, prolonged highway closures, and formation of new channels through forests. Scour monitoring at the eastern bridges has recorded as much as 44 feet of fill at one pier and 33 feet of scour at another. In 2009, flow distribution began to shift from the larger bridge 342 to bridge 339. In 2010, flow in excess of four times the design discharge scoured the streambed at bridge 339 to a level such that constant on-site monitoring was required to evaluate the potential need for bridge closure. In 2010, instantaneous flow through bridge 339 was never less than 30 percent and was as high as 49 percent of the total Copper River discharge. The percentage of flow through bridge 339 decreased when the overall Copper River discharge increased. The increased discharge through bridge 339 is attributed to a shift in the approach channel 3,500 feet upstream. Bridge channel alignment and analysis of flow distribution as of October 2010 indicate these hydrologic hazards will persist in 2011.