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Hydrogeomorphic segments and hydraulic microhabitats 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 meanders of hydrogeomorphic segment 18 in the CRB province.

The differences in channel morphology and hydraulic geometries between fluvial geomorphic provinces are evident in the types, relative abundance, and response of hydraulic microhabitats to changing discharges. The four gaging stations chosen for hydraulic microhabitat analysis are distributed among three different fluvial geomorphic provinces. In the MB province, the smaller channel and lower discharges resulted in the dominance of shallow and intermediate-depth hydraulic environments with the vast majority of hydraulic microhabitat restricted to shallow categories even during upper-decile discharges. In the CRB province, intermediate depth hydraulic conditions, particularly intermediate-swift, dominate over all ranges of discharge. Hydraulic microhabitat conditions were most diverse in the BB province, with most hydraulic microhabitat categories present over the entire range of discharges analyzed. The calculated differences in hydraulic microhabitat distributions, abundance, and adjustments between streamflow-gaging stations were the result of differences in physical structure of the channel and subsequent channel hydraulic geometry.

At the reach scale, field measurements made in water years 2008 and 2009 in four study reaches within the Scenic Reach were used to (1) characterize the elevation and geomorphic processes associated with fluvial landforms, (2) build hydraulic geometry relations, (3) examine flow hydraulics over a range of discharges, and (4) examine the types and responses of hydraulic microhabitats to a range of flow magnitudes. Four landform groups were identified and named in order of increasing elevation: low flood plains, intermediate flood plains, low terraces, and high terraces. The terraces were poorly characterized because the surveys did not extend across the full width of the alluvial valley bottom. The two lowest fluvial landforms are likely active in the modern hydroclimatic regime. Sediment samples obtained in the study reaches indicate that the primary bed material in the active channel ranged in size from coarse silt to coarse sand. Grain-size distributions from samples also indicate that the bed of the Niobrara River among the study reaches coarsens and has increasing grainsize variability in the downstream direction.

Values of at-a-station hydraulic geometry exponents indicate that the Niobrara River in the study reaches adjusts its geometry to changing discharges primarily through increases in flow depth and velocity. Relations at one cross section indicated that, at least locally, changes in width were also an important channel adjustment mechanism. Hydraulic behavior over the range of flows measured was not consistent among all study reaches, but two general modes of hydraulic behavior were observed in the reaches with substantial coverage of the bed by fine sediment. At the Sunny Brook and Muleshoe study reaches, average boundary-shear stress remained approximately constant, and hydraulic resistance decreased, for discharges below 900 cubic feet per second (ft3/s). Above 900 ft3/s, average boundary shear stress and hydraulic resistance both increased. The Rock Barn study reach did not exhibit the same two-mode hydraulic behavior observed at the Sunny Brook and Muleshoe reaches. The coincident increase in boundary shear stress above 900 ft3/s observed at the Sunny Brook and Muleshoe study reaches represents a potential hydraulic threshold above which bedload transport rates were likely to increase markedly. No consistent bed-adjustment pattern (scour or fill) was identified in the study reaches over the range of flows or over the measurement season.

Analysis of hydraulic microhabitats over the range of discharges measured at the study reaches indicates that some percentage of most habitat niche categories was available for at least one discharge condition, but the majority of hydraulic habitat available was within the intermediate-swift and deepswift habitat niche categories. Deep-swift conditions dominated nearly all study reaches under all measured discharge conditions. Slight differences in habitat distributions were observed between the study reaches with substantial coverage of the bed by fine sediment—Sunny Brook, Muleshoe, and Rock Barn—and the bedrock-dominated reach, Crooked Creek. Although the four study reaches occupy three different hydrogeomorphic segments, the types, relative abundance, and response of hydraulic microhabitat niche distributions to changing discharge conditions generally were similar among all reaches. 

Publication Year 2010
Title Hydrogeomorphic segments and hydraulic microhabitats of the Niobrara River, Nebraska— With special emphasis on the Niobrara National Scenic River
DOI 10.3133/sir20105141
Authors Jason S. Alexander, Ronald B. Zelt, Nathan J. Schaepe
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2010-5141
Index ID sir20105141
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Nebraska Water Science Center