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Six years of fluvial response to a large dam removal on the Carmel River, California, USA

February 7, 2023

Measuring river response to dam removal affords a rare, important opportunity to study fluvial response to sediment pulses on a large field scale. We present a before–after/control–impact study of the Carmel River, California, measuring fluvial geomorphic and grain-size evolution over 8 years, six of which postdated removal of a 32 m-high dam (one of the largest dams removed worldwide) and included 11 flow events exceeding the 2-year flood magnitude. We find that the reservoir-sediment pulse following dam removal was relatively small (97 000 ± 24 000 t over 4 years), owing to deliberate reservoir-sediment stabilization. Scaled to the size of the Carmel River watershed and compared against long-term bedrock denudation rates, the post-dam-removal sediment release was slightly less than the annualized long-term sediment export from this basin. New sediment transited >30 km to the river mouth in less than 2 years, assisted by floods 2 and 4 years after dam removal. The sediment pulse fined the downstream riverbed while causing mostly low-magnitude bed-elevation changes: commonly 0.5 to 1 m or smaller, occurring as discontinuous sediment patches or interstitial deposits, aside from the filling and subsequent partial scour of deep pools. There was no major geomorphic reset downstream from the dam site. Geomorphic changes were driven almost entirely by flow rather than by the modest increase in sediment supply, in contrast to recent examples from other large dam removals. The relatively minor disturbance caused by dam removal on the Carmel River is likely analogous to many future dam removals: a relatively small sediment pulse after deliberate limitation of reservoir-sediment erosion, and with an upstream dam remaining in place. Thus, a large dam removal need not lead to major downstream impacts.

Publication Year 2023
Title Six years of fluvial response to a large dam removal on the Carmel River, California, USA
DOI 10.1002/esp.5561
Authors Amy E. East, Lee R. Harrison, Douglas P. Smith, Joshua B. Logan, Rosealea Bond
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Earth Surface Processes and Landforms
Index ID 70242017
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center