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Landscape evolution in eastern Chuckwalla Valley, Riverside County, California

March 29, 2021

This study investigates sedimentary and geomorphic processes in eastern Chuckwalla Valley, Riverside County, California, a region of arid, basin-and-range terrain where extensive solar-energy development is planned. The objectives of this study were to (1) measure local weather parameters and use them to model aeolian sediment-transport potential; (2) identify surface sedimentary characteristics in representative localities; and (3) evaluate long-term landscape evolution rates and processes by analyzing stratigraphy in combination with luminescence geochronology.

The new stratigraphic and geochronologic data presented in this report demonstrate the varying local significance of aeolian, alluvial fan, lacustrine (playa), and possibly Colorado River influence over a range of time scales. The dominant sand-transport direction in eastern Chuckwalla Valley is toward the northeast, consistent with the recognized regional west-to-east wind direction. However, occasional strong wind events from the north can transport large quantities of sand southward and temporarily reshape local geomorphic features. Influence of a northwest wind direction is also locally dominant around mountain ranges and controls the modern morphology of the Palen dune field. Modeled sand fluxes are on the order of 105 kilograms per meter width per year at the site of weather monitoring, 5 kilometers northwest of the Mule Mountains. Aeolian dunes are locally well developed and actively migrating. Their location and activity are determined largely by sediment supply from playa surfaces and ephemeral stream channels, which also control the dunes’ spatial extent and migration potential; stream channels act as both source and sink for aeolian sediment in this environment.

Excavations at five sites along a northwest-to-southeast transect reveal that playa deposits formed around 266–226 thousand years ago south of the McCoy Mountains and immediately north of the present location of Interstate 10. The playa material is overlain by late Pleistocene to Holocene alluvial fan deposits. To the southeast (south of Interstate 10, but north of the Mule Mountains), we identified rapid accumulation of alluvial sediment around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum (23–20 thousand years ago), unconformably overlain by a locally varying assemblage of recent aeolian material or Holocene alluvial fan sediment. We have used stratigraphic characteristics and luminescence ages to calculate accumulation rates for sites in eastern Chuckwalla Valley, and thereby to identify spatial variation in landscape stability over decadal and longer time scales.

If future solar-energy development plans are to include natural sand-transport corridors, plans would entail retaining the ability for sand to be transported eastward from the ephemeral stream channels and playas that supply sediment to the dunes, sand sheets, and sand ramps of Chuckwalla Valley, and also to allow for southward transport during episodic strong weather events several times per year. The aeolian sediment-transport corridors are dynamic spatially and temporally, reorganizing on the basis of seasonal changes to wind drift potential. Future landscape stability also will be determined by climate-driven changes to vegetation and thereby to aeolian sediment availability. In a warmer, drier climate, aeolian sediment activity is expected to increase, owing to a decrease in stabilizing vegetation cover and more extreme rain that supplies sediment to ephemeral stream channels and playas from which it is remobilized by wind.