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The effects of vegetative feedbacks on flood shape, sediment transport, and geomorphic change in a dryland river: Moenkopi Wash, AZ

December 15, 2023

Since the 1950s, Moenkopi Wash, in Arizona, United States, has been transformed from a relatively wide river with little riparian vegetation, to a narrow, heavily vegetated river that is less than half of its former width. We analyzed a ∼95-years-long instantaneous-discharge record, an extensive sediment-transport record, oblique and aerial photographs, historical channel surveys, and historical stage-discharge rating relations to determine the primary mechanisms responsible for this transformation.

Frequent, large floods dominated the early part of the discharge record between 1926 and 1940. A dramatic ∼30 % decrease in annual mean discharge, and ∼27 % decrease in the mean of the partial-duration flood series occurred in 1941. This decline did not result in widespread channel change but provided an opportunity for vegetation to establish along the channel margins. Widespread channel narrowing began after a second decline in mean and peak discharge in 1956 at which time the channel banks became heavily vegetated. Between 1952 and 2019, the river channel narrowed by 57–59 %. Approximately 2–4 m of bed aggradation occurred at most study sites. As the channel narrowed and became more vegetated, large floods maintained the narrower channel width but did not cause rewidening. Suspended-sediment transport data illustrate the sediment trapping effects of vegetation that lead to channel narrowing; suspended-sand concentrations decline, thereby indicating sediment deposition, as vegetation becomes progressively inundated during floods. Furthermore, dense channel-margin and floodplain vegetation provide increased roughness, resulting in flood-peak attenuation and alteration of hydrograph shape. Vegetation expansion causes positive feedbacks whereby sediment deposition during floods is exacerbated by the roughness and sediment-trapping effects of vegetation leading to further narrowing. These positive feedbacks have reduced sediment delivery to the Little Colorado River downstream. Channel widening is not likely to occur unless there are very large floods that exceed the erosional threshold of the channel-margin vegetation, or unless large-scale vegetation removal efforts are undertaken.

Publication Year 2024
Title The effects of vegetative feedbacks on flood shape, sediment transport, and geomorphic change in a dryland river: Moenkopi Wash, AZ
DOI 10.1016/j.geomorph.2023.109017
Authors David Dean, David Topping
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Geomorphology
Index ID 70250681
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center