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February 8, 2024

USGS scientists Dr. Amy East and Molly Wood traveled for the second time to Ecuador in January 2024 to advise the Ecuadorian government on a river erosion natural disaster and on sediment monitoring to support maintenance and sustainability of Ecuador’s largest hydropower facility.

Photograph of two rows of people informally dressed and standing on a bridge with mountains with green landcover behind

USGS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and other federal agencies are working with Ecuadorian government officials from the Electric Corporation of Ecuador (CELEC) on strategies for managing sediment and erosion in the Río Coca basin after the 2020 collapse of the 144-meter-tall San Rafael waterfall.


The river valley has been eroding catastrophically upstream of the waterfall collapse, causing landslides and infrastructure damage. The erosion is rapidly migrating upstream and threatening approximately $3 billion of Ecuadorian infrastructure, including the Coca Codo Sinclair (CCS) hydropower facility. A new journal article, Major fluvial erosion and a 500-Mt sediment pulse triggered by lava-dam failure, Río Coca, Ecuador, documents this historic event.


During the January visit, USGS scientists observed substantial river channel shifts and upstream migration of the erosion front since April 2023. The erosion front is now about 7 kilometers downstream of the intake to the CCS hydropower facility. USGS and USACE scientists also visited and assessed the extent of sediment migration to the lower reaches of the Río Coca, downstream of the waterfall collapse. In addition to effects of the 2020 waterfall collapse, the same hydropower facilities are threatened by reservoir sediment accumulation upstream of the CCS intake.

Two women in business wear in front of a white marble wall with "Embassy of the United States of America" and an eagle seal.
USGS scientists Amy East and Molly Wood at the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador.


USACE and USGS scientists briefed new leadership of CELEC, Paúl Urgilés (CELEC General Manager) and Raúl Lopez (CELEC Río Coca Commission Director), as well as U.S. Embassy staff in Ecuador, regarding U.S. agency support to Ecuador in responding to the hazards. CELEC leadership expressed support for continued U.S. government assistance and for a USGS proposal to implement a watershed monitoring plan for sediment and streamflow. These data are needed by CELEC for sustainability assessments of infrastructure and implementation of sediment- and erosion-management strategies.



Photograph of stream in mountain area with green ground cover and brown sediment, blue sky
Río Coca, Ecuador, near current (January, 2024) location of the erosion front, which is migrating upstream toward the intake of the Coca Codo Sinclair hydropower facility. (Molly Wood, USGS)
Photograph of stream channel with steep banks, sediment, and mountains with green ground cover
Erosion on the Río Coca upstream of the former San Rafael waterfall site, Ecuador, showing a newly opened canyon that has formed since 2020. (Molly Wood, USGS) 
Broken black asphalt roadway in foreground with white X mark and centerline with mountains and steep valleys in background
Damage to the E45 road caused by valley-wall erosion following the 2020 failure of a lava dam, Río Coca valley, Ecuador, January 2024. (Amy East, USGS)
Silver lattice bridge and slab of black asphalt in stream channel in mountain area with gray bolders and sediment
Erosion in the Río Coca valley upstream of the former waterfall location, showing major damage to the roadway over the Río Marker, a tributary to the Río Loco, and temporary roadway access bridge. (Molly Wood, USGS)

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