Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Historical floods and geomorphic change in the lower Little Colorado River during the late 19th to early 21st centuries

August 19, 2021

The Little Colorado River is a major tributary to the Colorado River with a confluence at the boundary between Marble and Grand Canyons within Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. The bedrock gorge of the lower Little Colorado River is home to the largest known population of Gila cypha (humpback chub), an endangered fish endemic to the Colorado River Basin. Channel conditions might affect the spawning success of the humpback chub. Perennial base flow in the lower Little Colorado River deposits travertine, which forms dams and cascades. Geomorphic change in the lower Little Colorado River is controlled by the growth and collapse of travertine dams, debris flows from tributaries, and reworking of dams and debris fans by Little Colorado River floods.

A study was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to document historical floods and geomorphic change in the lower Little Colorado River. For this study, we used historical and gaging records and hydraulic modeling of surveyed high-water marks from historical Little Colorado River floods to construct a peak-flow history of the lower Little Colorado River. We analyzed base-flow longitudinal profiles and historical photographs to determine changes in the longitudinal profile of the lower Little Colorado River from 1909 to 2019. The peak-flow magnitudes and the frequency of larger floods have declined since the late 1800s, and the longitudinal profile of the Little Colorado River has substantially changed between 1909 and 2019. Aggradation of as much as 6 meters in some reaches occurred between 1926 and 1992, mostly before the 1950s. This aggradation was caused largely by the documented growth of travertine dams continuing through at least 2013 at several locations. Other reaches were incised by as much as 10 meters between 1926 and 1992, but mostly before the 1950s, largely from the breaching of travertine dams. Travertine dams in the Little Colorado River have survived large flooding events and then later collapsed during floods of lower streamflow or even periods of base flow. The decline in peak-flow magnitude and frequency has changed the dominant geomorphic processes in this formerly dynamic reach. Large incision events have not been documented since the early 1950s; for this reason, the reach has only aggraded or remained stable since that time. This loss of geomorphic disturbance has likely affected, and will likely continue to affect, the spawning habitat of the endangered humpback chub in the lower Little Colorado River.