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Paleogeomorphology of the early Colorado River inferred from relationships in Mohave and Cottonwood Valleys, Arizona, California and Nevada

December 1, 2014

Geologic investigations of late Miocene–early Pliocene deposits in Mohave and Cottonwood valleys provide important insights into the early evolution of the lower Colorado River system. In the latest Miocene these valleys were separate depocenters; the floor of Cottonwood Valley was ∼200 m higher than the floor of Mohave Valley. When Colorado River water arrived from the north after 5.6 Ma, a shallow lake in Cottonwood Valley spilled into Mohave Valley, and the river then filled both valleys to ∼560 m above sea level (asl) and overtopped the bedrock divide at the southern end of Mohave Valley. Sediment-starved water spilling to the south gradually eroded the outlet as siliciclastic Bouse deposits filled the lake upstream. When sediment accumulation reached the elevation of the lowering outlet, continued erosion of the outlet resulted in recycling of stored lacustrine sediment into downstream basins; depth of erosion of the outlet and upstream basins was limited by the water levels in downstream basins. The water level in the southern Bouse basin was ∼300 m asl (modern elevation) at 4.8 Ma. It must have drained and been eroded to a level <150 m asl soon after that to allow for deep erosion of bedrock divides and basins upstream, leading to removal of large volumes of Bouse sediment prior to massive early Pliocene Colorado River aggradation. Abrupt lowering of regional base level due to spilling of a southern Bouse lake to the Gulf of California could have driven observed upstream river incision without uplift. Rapid uplift of the entire region immediately after 4.8 Ma would have been required to drive upstream incision if the southern Bouse was an estuary.