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Recent planform changes in the Upper Mississippi River

December 31, 2020

Geomorphic changes in the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) have long been a concern of river agencies charged with maintaining and restoring river habitat (GREAT 1980; Jackson et al. 1981; USFWS 1992). Large meandering alluvial rivers like the UMR are expected to constantly change and adjust their fluvial landforms within their riparian corridors as a result of the natural interaction of hydrologic processes, sediment movement, and vegetation over time. However, present geomorphic changes in the UMR reflect altered hydrologic, hydraulic, and sediment conditions caused by regulated flows, constructed agricultural levees and navigation dams, altered land use in the watershed, and climate change. Levees reduce lateral hydrologic and sediment connectivity between channels and floodplains on many tributaries and on the Mississippi River downstream of Pool 13. Between each of the dams are a repeating series of landforms associated with tailwater, intermediate, and impounded conditions. The dams maintain a minimum water level, thus creating many off-channel areas that act as sediment traps. Whereas high-head dams cut off sedimentological connectivity longitudinally through the river corridor (Skalak et al., 2013), low head dams on the UMR only slightly altered transport longitudinally. Deltaic-like sedimentation can be common in the impounded sections of dammed rivers. Erosion of relict land surfaces that remained above the raised impounded water levels has been the dominant change in UMR impounded sections due to increased wind fetch leading to increased wave action. Even though upland sources of sediment from tributaries have decreased over the middle to late 20th century, increased annual precipitation, the interplay of increased variability in flood magnitudes from year to year, and more fall and winter flooding have likely changed erosion and sedimentation patterns in the UMR (Belby, et al., 2019). Paradoxically, monitoring and research indicates that the concentration of some water column constituents like total suspended solids and phosphorous has decreased during the 1991 to 2014 time period (Kreiling and Houser, 2016). In areas prone to increased sedimentation, bed elevations rise and thereby water depths are reduced at a given discharge, resulting in loss of fish habitat. Sediment deposition or erosion further influences water exchange rates between main channel and off-channel areas in the river by increasing resistance in connecting channels or enlarging existing connecting channels. Water depth and water exchange rates are the most prominent features describing habitat quality in the UMR (De Jager et al. 2018), and in some cases, the trajectory of planform change from heightened deposition promises to threaten deep backwater habitats particularly important for overwintering fish.

Although information on the rate of vertical change in bed elevation is needed for a complete assessment of geomorphic change associated with the loss of deep backwater habitats, mapping planform changes over time (i.e., lateral changes between the land-water boundary) provide needed information on the location, potential cause, and progressive direction of deposition, especially in the mid sections between dams where deltaic processes are the most pronounced. Several types of planform changes have been observed and identified as concerns. For example, island loss in the large impounded areas of the upper part of the UMR was one of the concerns identified by river managers in the 1980s and 90s, and subsequently island construction became a common form of restoration implemented by the Upper Mississippi River Restoration (UMRR) Program (USACE 2012). Other subtler planform changes, such as channel bank erosion and delta formation in backwaters, are perceived to be important, but have largely gone unquantified. A systemwide reconnaissance of the UMR and IWW conducted in 1998 concluded that 14-percent of the river banks were eroding (Nakato and Anderson 1998). However, stabilization of existing river banks has never been widely pursued as a restoration measure, due to the high cost and uncertain benefits. Delta formation reduces the amount of backwater habitat; however, the deltas maintain and create a mix of riparian and aquatic habitats, and that is generally considered to be beneficial for wildlife and fish. If recent hydrologic trends of more frequent and longer duration flood events continue, a better understanding of planform changes can help in describing past changes, and then be used to forecast potential future trajectories of change. If UMR resource managers determine that past and forecasted conditions are undesirable, then UMRR projects could be identified and prioritized to address those concerns.

Vegetative cover associations with landform changes have been used to detect and quantify planform changes in many rivers (Johnson 1985; Hiatt 2015; Volte et al. 2015). Freyer and Jefferson (2013) completed such a study in Pool 6 of the UMR using the landcover data from 12 dates over a 115-yr period, including the 1989, 2000, and 2010/2011 landcover/use (LCU) data from the UMRR Program. Planform change detected over the last 20 years represented by the UMRR Program data best reflect present-day geomorphic patterns, rates and processes. Changes occurring prior to dam construction and changes occurring soon after dam construction are likely not the same as those happening now, 50-70 years after dam construction and creation of the impoundments (McHenry et al., 1984; Bhowmik and Adams, 1986; WEST Consultants, 2000).

The LCU data from each of the 1989, 2000, and 2010/2011 imagery was developed using similar methods and is available in a Geographical Information System (GIS) for the entire UMR and therefore provides the opportunity for a more comprehensive planform change analysis. This study used GIS overlays of LCU classes to map and quantify changes in planform features over two periods, looking specifically for depositional areas where terrestrial and wetland vegetation expanded at the expense of open water. The land expansion was grouped into four possible process-based types common in large floodplain rivers, some following that used by Lewin et al. (2017). The four types include: crevasse deltas emanating from a breach from a main channel through a natural levee or narrow floodplain into backwaters (crevasse deltas), tributary deltas expanding into backwaters (tributary deltas), deltaic bars at the upstream end of impoundments (impounded deltas), and linear-like bars extending from the downstream ends of narrow levees and remnant floodplains (bar-tail limbs). The methods deployed for change detection addressed possible errors from a variety of sources.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2020
Title Recent planform changes in the Upper Mississippi River
Authors James T. Rogala, Faith A. Fitzpatrick, Jon S. Hendrickson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Series Title Long Term Resource Monitoring Technical Report
Series Number LTRM-2019GC8
Index ID 70210826
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center; Upper Midwest Water Science Center