Draining the volcanic, glaciated terrain of Mount Rainier, Washington, the Puyallup, White, and Carbon Rivers convey copious volumes of water and sediment down to Commencement Bay in Puget Sound. Recent flooding in the lowland river system has renewed interest in understanding sediment transport and its effects on flow conveyance throughout the lower drainage basin. Bathymetric and topographic data for 156 cross sections were surveyed in the lower Puyallup River system by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and were compared with similar datasets collected in 1984. Regions of significant aggradation were measured along the Puyallup and White Rivers. Between 1984 and 2009, aggradation totals as measured by changes in average channel elevation were as much as 7.5, 6.5, and 2 feet on the Puyallup, White, and Carbon Rivers, respectively. These aggrading river sections correlated with decreasing slopes in riverbeds where the rivers exit relatively confined sections in the upper drainage and enter the relatively unconstricted valleys of the low-gradient Puget Lowland. Measured grain-size distributions from each riverbed showed a progressive fining downstream.
Analysis of stage-discharge relations at streamflow-gaging stations along rivers draining Mount Rainier demonstrated the dynamic nature of channel morphology on river courses influenced by glaciated, volcanic terrain. The greatest rates of aggradation since the 1980s were in the Nisqually River near National (5.0 inches per year) and the White River near Auburn (1.8 inches per year). Less pronounced aggradation was measured on the Puyallup River and the White River just downstream of Mud Mountain Dam. The largest measured rate of incision was measured in the Cowlitz River at Packwood (5.0 inches per year).
Channel-conveyance capacity estimated using a one-dimensional hydraulic model decreased in some river reaches since 1984. The reach exhibiting the largest decrease (about 20-50 percent) in channel-conveyance capacity was the White River between R Street Bridge and the Lake Tapps return, a reach affected by recent flooding. Conveyance capacity also decreased in sections of the Puyallup River. Conveyance capacity was mostly unchanged along other study reaches. Bedload transport was simulated throughout the entire river network and consistent with other observations and analyses, the hydraulic model showed that the upper Puyallup and White Rivers tended to accumulate sediment. Accuracy of the bedload-transport modeling, however, was limited due to a scarcity of sediment-transport data sets from the Puyallup system, mantling of sand over cobbles in the lower Puyallup and White Rivers, and overall uncertainty in modeling sediment transport in gravel-bedded rivers. Consequently, the output results from the model were treated as more qualitative in value, useful in comparing geomorphic trends within different river reaches, but not accurate in producing precise predictions of mass of sediment moved or deposited.
The hydraulic model and the bedload-transport component were useful for analyzing proposed river-management options, if surveyed cross sections adequately represented the river-management site and proposed management options. The hydraulic model showed that setback levees would provide greater flood protection than gravel-bar scalping after the initial project construction and for some time thereafter, although the model was not accurate enough to quantify the length of time of the flood protection. The greatest hydraulic benefit from setback levees would be a substantial increase in the effective channel-conveyance area. By widening the distance between levees, the new floodplain would accommodate larger increases in discharge with relatively small incremental increases in stage. Model simulation results indicate that the hydraulic benefit from a setback levee also would be long-lived and would effectively compensate for increased deposition within the setback reach