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Hydrogeomorphic and hydraulic habitats of the Niobrara River, Nebraska-with special emphasis on the Niobrara National Scenic River

August 11, 2010

The Niobrara River is an ecologically and economically important resource in Nebraska. The Nebraska Department of Natural Resources' recent designation of the hydraulically connected surface- and groundwater resources of the Niobrara River Basin as ?fully appropriated? has emphasized the importance of understanding linkages between the physical and ecological dynamics of the Niobrara River so it can be sustainably managed. In cooperation with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the U.S. Geological Survey investigated the hydrogeomorphic and hydraulic attributes of the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska. This report presents the results of an analysis of hydrogeomorphic segments and hydraulic microhabitats of the Niobrara River and its valley for the approximately 330-mile reach from Dunlap Diversion Dam to its confluence with the Missouri River. Two spatial scales were used to examine and quantify the hydrogeomorphic segments and hydraulic microhabitats of the Niobrara River: a basin scale and a reach scale.

At the basin scale, digital spatial data and hydrologic data were analyzed to (1) test for differences between 36 previously determined longitudinal hydrogeomorphic segments; (2) quantitatively describe the hydrogeomorphic characteristics of the river and its valley; and (3) evaluate differences in hydraulic microhabitat over a range of flow regimes among three fluvial geomorphic provinces.

The statistical analysis of hydrogeomorphic segments resulted in reclassification rates of 3 to 28 percent of the segments for the four descriptive geomorphic elements. The reassignment of classes by discriminant analysis resulted in a reduction from 36 to 25 total hydrogeomorphic segments because several adjoining segments shared the same ultimate class assignments. Virtually all of the segment mergers were in the Canyons and Restricted Bottoms (CRB) fluvial geomorphic province. The most frequent classes among hydrogeomorphic segments, and the dominant classes per unit length of river, are: a width-restricted valley confinement condition, sinuous-planview pattern, irregular channel width, and an alternate bar configuration.

The Niobrara River in the study area flows through a diversity of fluvial geomorphic settings in its traverse across northern Nebraska. In the Meandering Bottoms (MB) fluvial geomorphic province, river discharge magnitudes are low, and the valley exerts little control on the channel-planview pattern. Within the CRB province, the river flows over a diversity of geologic formations, and the valley and river narrow and expand in approximate synchronicity. In the Braided Bottoms (BB) fluvial geomorphic province, the river primarily flows over Cretaceous Pierre Shale, the valley and channel are persistently wide, and the channel slope is generally uniform. The existence of vegetated islands and consequent multithread channel environments, indicated by a higher braided index, mostly coincided with reaches having gentler slopes and less unit stream power. Longitudinal hydrology curves indicate that the flow of the Niobrara River likely is dominated by groundwater as far downstream as Norden. Unit stream power values in the study area vary between 0 and almost 2 pounds per foot per second. Within the MB province, unit stream power steadily increases as the Niobrara gains discharge from groundwater inflow, and the channel slope steepens. The combination of steep slopes, a constrained channel width, and persistent flow within the CRB province results in unit stream power values that are between three and five times greater than those in less confined segments with comparable or greater discharges. With the exception of hydrogeomorphic segment 3, which is affected by Spencer Dam, unit stream power values in the BB province are generally uniform. Channel sinuosity values in the study area varied generally between 1 and 2.5, but with locally higher values measured in the MB province and at the entrenched bedrock me