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Multi-decadal sandbar response to flow management downstream from a large dam—The Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in Marble and Grand Canyons, Arizona

September 16, 2022

Sandbars are an important resource in the Colorado River corridor in Marble and Grand Canyons, Arizona, downstream from Glen Canyon Dam. Sandbars provide aquatic and riparian habitat and are used as campsites by river runners and hikers. The study area is the Colorado River between Glen Canyon Dam and Diamond Creek, which is about 388 kilometers (241 miles) downstream from the dam. Closure of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963 and subsequent flow regulation reduced the sediment supply, limited the magnitude and frequency of floods, and increased the magnitude of baseflows. The result has been widespread erosion of sandbars and expansion of native and non-native vegetation on previously bare sand deposits in this debris-fan dominated canyon river. This study reports on the on-going long-term measurement program of Northern Arizona University, initiated in 1990 with the Bureau of Reclamation, and now also with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. We report on all sandbar measurements made between 1990 and 2020 to demonstrate the multi-decadal response of the sandbar monitoring sites resulting from flow regulation by Glen Canyon Dam. Because only one study site is located in Glen Canyon, the 25 kilometer (15.5 miles) reach just below Glen Canyon Dam, analyses of sandbar response are only made for the next two canyon segments in the down-river direction, Marble Canyon (388 kilometers [99 miles]) and Grand Canyon (265 kilometers [165 miles]), respectively, where the majority of study sites are located.

We show that a majority of monitoring sites increased in volume during a period of frequent controlled floods intended to rebuild sandbars. In the period from 2004 to 2020, which included seven controlled floods, a median discharge of 350 cubic meters per second (m3/s), and greater than average tributary sand inputs in more than half of the years, net deposition occurred at 86 percent of long-term monitoring sites. This period was preceded by a period of net erosion (1990–2003) when there was one controlled flood greater than the nominal powerplant capacity of 940 m3/s. During this period the median discharge from Glen Canyon Dam was 376 m3/s and greater than average sand inputs occurred in only 36 percent of those years. At the end of the monitoring period in 2020, 61 percent of the study sites measured since 1990 underwent a net increase in sand volume. For the entire 31-year period, these trends were statistically significant for all six sandbar types studied, indicating that increased frequency of controlled flooding maintained sandbar volume at the majority of sites monitored. These floods, also referred to as high-flow experiments (HFEs), are part of a decision-making protocol approved in 2012 for coordinating dam releases timed to occur following large sand inputs to the Colorado River by a major tributary.

These findings are based on digital elevation models (DEMs) derived from approximately (~)1,800 repeat surveys of sandbar and channel bed topography made annually, or more frequently, at the 45 long-term monitoring sites, of which 31 have been monitored since 1990 and 14 were added between 1990 and 2008. This large collection of monitoring sites comprises just 7 to 9 percent of all sandbars in Marble and Grand Canyons, respectively. Nevertheless, when compared with measurements of a larger sample, these sites provide consistent characterization of average sandbar response, despite the local variability in channel and debris fan geometry. We use sand volume and normalized sand volume for tracking geomorphic changes of sandbars, because these metrics are sensitive to both changes in sandbar area and sandbar elevation. Based on checkpoint comparisons and repeat measurements, DEM elevation uncertainty was determined to be ±0.05 meter (m) and this uncertainty was used in a spatially uniform estimate of volume uncertainty. We find that the magnitudes of the topographic changes were substantially greater than the measurement uncertainty.

Sandbars of similar type throughout both Marble and Grand Canyons have responded similarly during the period of the HFE protocol, despite variations in sand supply and longitudinal extent of those inputs. It should be noted that tributary-supplied sand to Glen Canyon is negligible, much of the riverbed is now armored with cobbles, and the channel bed degradation is irreversible in the current flow and sediment supply regime. Because all these HFEs have been conducted during periods of sediment enrichment, other factors such as vegetation and geomorphic setting are likely the primary causes of variation among the monitoring sites. A larger percentage of the sandbar population, predominantly located in narrow reaches where stage changes are greater, is composed of sandbar types that remain dynamic and consistently aggrade during HFEs. In contrast, wide reaches of the river corridor where stage change is not as great are characterized by sandbars that have been stabilized by vegetation and progressive aggradation during floods. In the former case, a majority of sandbars are likely to remain dynamic, requiring continued use of HFEs to achieve desired management goals. In the latter case, HFEs can do no better than replace the sediment eroded during normal dam operation between high-flow events, as they become less effective because of a diminishing amount of accommodation space available for deposition. Long-term sandbar trajectory and the continued effectiveness of HFEs are related to the differential vegetation establishment at each bar type. Future sandbar monitoring may need to consider the effects of riparian vegetation removal.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Multi-decadal sandbar response to flow management downstream from a large dam—The Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in Marble and Grand Canyons, Arizona
DOI 10.3133/pp1873
Authors Joseph E. Hazel, Matthew A. Kaplinski, Daniel Hamill, Daniel Buscombe, Erich R. Mueller, Robert P. Ross, Keith Kohl, Paul E. Grams
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Professional Paper
Series Number 1873
Index ID pp1873
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center

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