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Hydrology and geomorphology of the Taiya River near the West Creek Tributary, southeast Alaska

August 11, 2020

The Taiya River flows through the Chilkoot Trail Unit of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in southeast Alaska, which was founded to preserve cultural and historical resources and further understanding of natural processes active in the surrounding coastal-to-subarctic basin. Riverine processes exert an important influence on ecologically important boreal toad (Anaxryus boreas boreas), salmon [chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta), pink salmon (O. gorbushca), and coho salmon (O. kisutch)], and eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) habitats, erosion of the historic ghost town of Dyea and other cultural and historical artifacts, and recreational opportunities in the lower 7.5 kilometers (km) of the Taiya River valley bottom. Recurrent consideration of hydroelectric development in West Creek upstream of the park since the 1980s has included proposals for damming and diverting West Creek, which could alter the delivery of water and sediment to this section of the Taiya River. To improve understanding of the hydrologic dependence of park resources for the purposes of guiding effective monitoring and conservation, this study, conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the National Park Service, used a review of hydrologic data, collection of discrete suspended sediment data, geomorphic mapping, and analysis of historical aerial and ground photographs in a reconnaissance of formative geomorphic processes and hydrologic conditions in the lower 7.5 km of the Taiya River valley bottom.

Streamflow and suspended sediment data collected at the U.S. Geological Survey streamgages on the Taiya River and West Creek, combined with historical data, document conditions consistent with streams draining strongly glacierized basins in Alaska. Suspended sediment concentrations from samples collected concurrently over six varying flow levels during 2017–18 ranged from 6 to 284 milligrams per liter (mg/L) for the Taiya River and 13 to 162 mg/L for West Creek, which are similar to or slightly higher than historical values. For the common period of record (1970–77), correlation of daily mean discharge between the two streams was strongest (Pearson’s r = 0.97) during the prolonged May–October high-flow season and weakest (r = 0.90) during the November–April low-flow season, when West Creek daily mean discharge was proportionally higher. For the Taiya River, streamflow data compared between the available periods of record (1970–77 and 2004–17) showed no decadal-scale patterns in mean annual discharge but did show a shift toward an earlier spring snowmelt pulse. Notable flooding in the Taiya River Basin includes glacial lake outburst floods from the Nourse River valley prior to and during the 1897–98 Gold Rush, a 2002 glacial lake outburst flood from the West Creek valley, and a 1967 rainfall-generated flood.

Geomorphic mapping identified four categories of surfaces in the valley bottom—active main stem, abandoned main stem, alluvial fans, and emergent tidal surfaces. Using the maps, main-stem surfaces were subdivided into age categories to identify channel migration patterns from prior to 1940s to 2018. The valley bottom is dominated by active or abandoned channels of the Taiya River except at the extensive low-angle West Creek fan. The active main stem presently supports a mostly single-thread channel with bars and a few sloughs, but the channel actively moved and sometimes was braided within multiple, wider unvegetated corridors in 1894 and earlier. An inventory of 29 off-main-stem channels identified for the study indicates that abandoned main stem channels provide local topographic lows that can intercept groundwater or sustain tributary flow, facilitating the formation of most nonestuarine wetlands in the valley and sustaining important boreal toad breeding habitat.

Within the active main stem corridor, the channel has episodically built and reworked meanders and bars, eroding more than one-half of the historic Dyea townsite, in response to glacially controlled delivery of water and sediment, flooding, inputs from West Creek, local features including large woody debris and beaver dams, and rapid uplift from isostatic rebound. West Creek has constructed a large, persistent fan, provoked kilometer-scale Taiya River channel change near the confluence, constructively added to high-season streamflow that affects Taiya River channel migration capacity, disproportionately contributed early-season streamflow, and possibly contributed to groundwater levels in the valley bottom. The progressive narrowing and stability of the main stem corridor, possibly a result of reduction in the magnitude or frequency of glacial lake outburst floods or glacial sediment delivery to streams, indicates less active future reworking of abandoned main-stem surfaces or regeneration of wetland features. The fluvial history of the Taiya River valley bottom collectively indicates continued channel change within a limited corridor, relative stability in wetland locations but uncertainty in stability of groundwater supply to them, and channel incision and extension in response to uplift.

Publication Year 2020
Title Hydrology and geomorphology of the Taiya River near the West Creek Tributary, southeast Alaska
DOI 10.3133/sir20205059
Authors Janet H. Curran
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2020-5059
Index ID sir20205059
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center; Alaska Science Center Water