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Assessment and characterization of ephemeral stream channel stability and mechanisms affecting erosion in Grand Valley, western Colorado, 2018–21

May 6, 2024

The Grand Valley in western Colorado is in the semiarid Southwest United States. The north side of the Grand Valley has many ungaged ephemeral streams, which are of particular interest because (1) the underlying bedrock geology, Late Cretaceous Mancos Shale, is a sedimentary rock deposit identified as a major salinity contributor to the Colorado River and (2) despite infrequent streamflows of short duration, monsoon-derived floods in these ephemeral streams can carry substantial amounts of sediment downstream, affecting upstream and downstream banks and channel cross sections. The study area is of interest, because salinity, or the total dissolved solids concentration, in the Colorado River causes an estimated $300 million to $400 million per year in economic damages in the United States, and it is estimated 62 percent of the Upper Colorado River Basin’s total dissolved solid loads originate from geologic sources. In an effort to minimize salt contributions to the Colorado River from public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, a comprehensive salinity control approach is typically used to reduce nonpoint sources of salinity through land management techniques and practices.

In 2018, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, began an assessment of ephemeral streams located on the north side of the Grand Valley, western Colorado, to characterize stream channel stability and identify mechanisms affecting erosion. The U.S. Geological Survey developed a method for automatically extracting channel cross-section geometry from existing remotely sensed terrain models. Based on estimated flood stage and surrogate streamflows, hydraulic characteristics were calculated. Furthermore, the channel geometries and hydraulic characteristics were used to estimate channel stability using a statistical model.

Cross-section stabilities were determined from a stream channel stability assessment for a subset of 1,406 visited (field observed) locations out of 13,415 cross sections, which were delineated from remotely sensed terrain models. The application of Manning’s resistance equation in combination with multiple logistic regression models demonstrated channel stability can be estimated with a 0.845 goodness of fit for a validation dataset when using a combination of drainage area, width-to-depth ratio, sinuosity, and shear stress as the explanatory variables. Stream channel stability was extrapolated for 13,415 unvisited (not field observed) cross sections using the multiple logistic regression model and defined explanatory variables. Mapping of the ephemeral streams and their associated stabilities may be used by the Bureau of Land Management to prioritize areas for remediation or changes in management strategies to reduce sediment and salinity loading to the Colorado River.

The study found channel stability within the ephemeral streams to be spatially variable, longitudinally discontinuous, and dictated by changes in channel bed slope. The stable ephemeral streams were relatively wide and shallow and often had smaller drainage areas with less potential for producing shear stresses capable of overcoming channel adhesion. A change in channel bed slope can provide the means necessary to generate shear stresses appropriate to initiate erosion and a subsequent stability transition to incising channels. Channel widening happens when either or both banks of an incising channel reach a critical height for mass wasting, or when channel curvature causes higher sidewall stress. Regardless, widening channels can promote increases in sinuosity and subsequently reduce steep channel bed slopes. Consequently, stable and widening channels can have comparable bed slopes, making channel bed slope a poor explanatory variable to predict channel stability overall, despite its function to initiate channel instability.

The results were based on a surrogate 0.10 annual exceedance probability (AEP; return period equal to the 10-year flood) interval streamflow, although it was recognized fluctuations in streamflow would also affect channel stability. Past and current changes within the study area affect streamflow; therefore, mechanisms affecting erosion include land use disturbances, soil compaction, loss of vegetation cover, drought, less frequent and more extreme precipitation, and fires—which all intensify the potential runoff and erosion within the study area.

Publication Year 2024
Title Assessment and characterization of ephemeral stream channel stability and mechanisms affecting erosion in Grand Valley, western Colorado, 2018–21
DOI 10.3133/sir20235145
Authors Joel William Homan
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2023-5145
Index ID sir20235145
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Colorado Water Science Center