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Geomorphic change in the Limitrophe reach of the Colorado River in response to the 2014 delta pulse flow, United States and Mexico

April 23, 2015

A pulse of water was released from Morelos Dam into the dry streambed of the Colorado River in its former delta on March 23, 2014. Although small in relation to delta floods of a century ago, this was the first flow to reach the sea in nearly two decades. The pulse flow was significant in that it resulted from an international agreement, Minute 319, which allowed Colorado River water to be used for environmental restoration. Here we present a historical perspective of channel change and the results of geomorphic and sediment transport monitoring during the pulse flow between Yuma, Arizona and San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora. This reach is known as the Limitrophe, because the river channel is the legal border between the United States and Mexico. Peak discharge of the pulse flow was 120 m3/s at Morelos Dam, but decreased to 71 m3/s at the southern border because of infiltration losses to the dry streambed. In contrast, flood flows in the 1980s and 1990s peaked above 600 m3/s at the southern border, and high flows above 200 m3/s were common. The sustained high flows in the 1980s caused widening and reworking of the river channel downstream through the delta. In the Limitrophe, flooding in 1993 from the Gila River basin dissected the 1980s flood surfaces, and smaller floods in the late 1990s incised the modern “active” channel within these higher surfaces. Field observations show that most geomorphic change during the pulse flow was confined to this pre-pulse, active channel. Relatively little bank erosion was evident, particularly in upstream reaches where vegetation is most dense, but new sandbars formed in areas of flow expansion. Farther downstream, localized bed scour and deposition ranged from 10s of centimeters to more than a meter, and fluvial dunes aggraded the bed in several locations. Measurable suspended-sediment transport occurred throughout the Limitrophe. Sediment concentrations peaked during the rising limb, and suspended sand concentrations suggest deposition in the lower 7 km of the Limitrophe as the channel gradient decreases by an order of magnitude. The pulse flow was small compared to historic floods, and flood magnitudes greater than the 2014 pulse flow are therefore necessary to significantly rework stable geomorphic surfaces or induce channel widening.

Publication Year 2015
Title Geomorphic change in the Limitrophe reach of the Colorado River in response to the 2014 delta pulse flow, United States and Mexico
Authors Erich R. Mueller, John C. Schmidt, David Topping, Paul E. Grams
Publication Type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Conference Paper
Index ID 70148361
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center