The Alagnak River, a National Wild River located in southwestern Alaska, drains an area of 3,600 square kilometers and is used for recreational and subsistence activities, primarily angling, camping, rafting, and hunting by visitors and seasonal residents, and for commercial guiding by several lodges. Increases in visitor use in the 1990s included an increase in the use of high-horsepower motorboats on the river, primarily for angling, and raised concerns regarding human impacts on water quality.
Downstream from its confluence with the Nonvianuk River at river kilometer (RK) 93, the Alagnak River is formed in glacial drift and outwash with a single, low bedrock outcrop. Analysis of aerial photography from 1951, 1982, and 2001 shows that the river's multiple channels from RK 57 to 93 have been relatively stable. In contrast, long reaches of multiple channels from RK 35 to 57 changed substantially between 1951 and 1982, creating a new complex of channels. Downstream from RK 35, channel changes in the past 50 years consist largely of minor meander migration.
Analysis of water samples collected during this study at RK 21, 46, and 93 and in the Alagnak and Nonvianuk Rivers at the outlets of the lakes that form their source shows that the Alagnak River is a nutrient-poor, calcium-bicarbonate water with low suspended-sediment concentrations. Water chemistry changes little over time or in a downstream direction. Weak patterns over time include high late May/early June concentrations of some nutrients, carbon, and iron. Weak patterns over distance include downstream increases in iron, manganese, and phosphorous. No pervasive human impacts on Alagnak River water chemistry were detected. Local effects that could be diluted within a kilometer downstream of the source were not detectable by this study.
Data collected at three continuously recording wake gaging stations at RK 21, 46, and 93 showed that 1999-2000 motorboat use was heaviest in the lower reaches of the river, moderate in the middle reaches, and very light in the upper reaches. Maximum boat use was 137, 40, and 4 wakes per day at RK 21, 46, and 93, respectively. The mean height of the maximum wave generated in each wake was about 0.15 m (meters) at all three gaging stations.
Bank erosion monitoring at 14 sites between RK 21 and 93 quantified erosion rates ranging from 0 to 1.1 m/yr (meters per year). Erodibility (based on grain-size analysis) increases in a downstream direction, as do measured erosion rates. Alagnak River banks are noncohesive and erode by grain-by-grain removal of sediment in an alternating pattern of water-driven erosion and gravitydriven erosion. Periodic surveys at bank erosion monitoring sites detected the development of a shallow underwater shelf formed by the action of wind waves and boat wakes at several sites. This shelf contains sediment eroded from the bank and redeposited adjacent to the bank; the shelf reformed as water levels changed but maintained the same wave-generated form throughout much of the season.
Measurements of bank erosion processes, particularly the development of a wave-generated shelf, and visual observations suggest that boat wakes increase bank erosion rates, especially at high, exposed banks. Analysis of aerial photography and other assessments of bank erosion processes indicate that this increase in erosion rates has not altered the mechanisms of channel change, which in the past 50 years have included complex, compound channel changes and meander migration.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Channel Stability and Water Quality of the Alagnak River, Southwestern Alaska