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Reservoir evolution, downstream sediment transport, downstream channel change, and synthesis of geomorphic responses of Fall Creek and Middle Fork Willamette River to water years 2012–18 streambed drawdowns at Fall Creek Lake, Oregon

May 17, 2024

Executive Summary

Chapter A. Introduction

Fall Creek Dam impounds Fall Creek Lake, a 10-kilometer-long reservoir in western Oregon and is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) primarily for flood-risk management (or flood control) in late autumn through early spring months, as well as for water quality, irrigation, recreation, and habitat in late spring through early autumn. Since 2011 (water year [WY] 2012), Fall Creek Lake has been temporarily drawn down each year to facilitate downstream passage of juvenile spring Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) through the 55-meter (m) high dam. This annual dam operation is temporary, typically lasting about 1–2 weeks from WY 2012 through 2020 (drawdown operations in WY 2022–24 have increased to more than 6 weeks). Drawdown of the reservoir results in lake levels being lowered to the elevation near the historical, pre-dam streambed. The annual streambed drawdowns of WY 2012–18 have improved fish passage and led the USACE to formally adopt streambed drawdowns as part of annual operations at Fall Creek Dam. However, temporarily lowering the lake to streambed creates free-flowing conditions in the reservoir that result in the erosion and episodic export of predominantly sand and finer-grained sediments (less than 2 millimeters [mm]) to the lower gravel-bed reaches of Fall Creek and the Middle Fork Willamette River. The introduction of large volumes of sand and finer-grain sediment into the dam-regulated reaches downstream from Fall Creek Dam prompted questions about the geomorphic responses to annual streambed drawdowns within Fall Creek Lake and downstream reaches along Fall Creek and the Middle Fork Willamette River. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in partnership with USACE initiated a comprehensive geomorphic and sediment transport investigation to assess the coupled processes of reservoir erosion, sediment evacuation from Fall Creek Lake, and patterns of sediment transport and deposition in reaches downstream from the Fall Creek Dam that have resulted from annual streambed drawdowns.

The purpose of this report is to systematically describe the processes of sediment erosion, transport, and deposition at Fall Creek Lake and geomorphic interactions between reaches upstream and downstream from Fall Creek Dam that relate to dam operations. Specifically, this report focuses on evaluating geomorphic responses to streambed drawdowns from WY 2012 through 2018 and placing drawdown-induced geomorphic responses within the broader context of physiographic and historical conditions and dam operations of Fall Creek and Middle Fork Willamette Rivers. Key objectives for this study were to characterize changes in reservoir morphology and substrate at Fall Creek Lake, describe the character and temporal pattern of sediment transport downstream from Fall Creek Dam, characterize geomorphic changes in channel reaches downstream from the Fall Creek Dam, and relate these data to the annual streambed drawdowns of WY 2012–18. This study uses multiple independent monitoring and measurement approaches to assess site, reach, and river-scale geomorphic responses to drawdowns to inform dam and reservoir management. Patterns and processes of reservoir evolution were assessed with geomorphic mapping and volumetric analyses of topography through comparison of multiple digital surface models (DSMs). Just downstream from Fall Creek Dam, analyses of sediment export from the reservoir focused on suspended sediment but also incorporated bedload analyses to assess sediment sizes. Geomorphic assessments downstream from the dam used reach-scale and site-scale approaches to document changes in channel morphology and substrate, including site measurements of sand and finer-grained sediment deposition and in-channel bed-material, volumetric change analyses from comparison of digital elevation models (DEMs), and repeat geomorphic mapping. Findings from this study inform river management and dam operations by providing an understanding of (1) coupled upstream-downstream geomorphic responses to the Fall Creek Lake streambed drawdowns, (2) geomorphic responses of Fall Creek Lake streambed drawdowns in comparison to drawdowns at other large dams, (3) controls on reservoir erosion and downstream geomorphic responses, and (4) implications for future hydrogeomorphic changes that may result from continued drawdowns and monitoring activities to assess those changes.

Chapter B. Reservoir Morphology and Evolution Related to Dam Operations at Fall Creek Lake

To understand the volume and distribution of sediment accumulation in Fall Creek Lake since dam closure in 1965, decadal-scale sedimentation patterns (spanning approximately 1965–2016) are evaluated using a combination of storage curve analyses and geomorphic mapping. Short-term (drawdown event-scale) patterns of erosion, sedimentation, and sediment export downstream are evaluated using a combination of geomorphic mapping and change detection analyses that quantify the distribution and total volume of sediment erosion and deposition within Fall Creek Lake.

Geomorphic mapping of reservoir topography and analyses of historical datasets reveals four categories of landforms and sediment processes within Fall Creek Lake related to lake level operations:

  • lacustrine sedimentation expressed in the reservoir floor,
  • fluvial erosion and deposition within historical stream channels during streambed drawdowns,
  • channel-like features created by erosion within the reservoir floor during streambed drawdowns, and
  • erosion on reservoir hillslopes.

Where the reservoir floor is mapped for this study as pelagic (deep water), deposition up to 3 meters (m) thick by lacustrine processes and burial of pre-dam topography with deposits thinning toward the edges of the valley floor and upstream areas of reservoir are observed. Despite over 50 years of sediment accumulation since dam construction, the main stream channels of Fall and Winberry Creeks (or reservoir thalwegs) through the reservoir are well defined, though their distinct morphology is likely influenced by a long history of recurring historical drawdowns to or near streambed since dam construction. Unregulated streamflow and sediment transport through the reservoir primarily are confined to these channels during the streambed drawdown periods. Erosional channel-like features created by drawdowns are carved through underlying, unconsolidated reservoir floor sediments and are most prominent in the lower reservoir below minimum conservation pool (the low pool elevation during winter flood season); sediment generated from the formation of these drawdown channels is more likely to be transported through and out of the reservoir than sediment deposits along the reservoir hillslopes at the valley margins that are separated from main channels by areas of low-gradient reservoir floor. Morphologic changes in the lower reservoir topography between January 2012 and November 2016 indicate overall net erosion of about 129,500 cubic meters (m3). The most prominent geomorphic changes occurred along the main channels of Fall and Winberry Creeks near the Fall Creek Dam where incision, lateral migration, and slumping banks resulted in vertical and lateral adjustments to channel position, whereas most changes fell below the detectable limit on higher-elevation reservoir floor surfaces except where erosion occurred along features mapped as drawdown channels.

Chapter C. Sediment Delivery from Fall Creek Lake and Transport through Downstream Reaches

USGS implemented a sediment monitoring program in WY 2013–18 to evaluate the quantity and character of reservoir sediment exported from Fall Creek Lake during streambed drawdowns. Turbidity and suspended sediments were monitored annually autumn through spring to span the WY 2013–18 streambed drawdowns; however, unequal monitoring timeframes each year reduced the ability to compare results and factors affecting sediment export from the reservoir difficult between years. These data were originally measured to develop regressions and compute suspended-sediment loads (SSL). Bedload sediment monitoring from a cableway at the Fall Creek streamgage was completed in the autumn-winter of WY 2013 and 2017. The limited number of samples and presumed variability in sediment supply from the reservoir precluded construction of streamflow and bedload discharge relations to compute more than instantaneous bedload.

Sand and finer-grained silts and clays were transported from the reservoir in suspension, though some coarser grains (up to 32 mm) were also mobilized and transported downstream from the dam as bedload. Observations of increased sediment transport downstream from Fall Creek Dam coincided with lake levels approaching about 3 m (10 feet [ft] or elevation 690 ft) above the streambed regulating outlets. Suspended-sediment loads computed for the full monitoring periods WY 2013–18 at the Fall Creek streamgage, located 1.4 kilometers (km) downstream from Fall Creek Dam, range from 54,700 metric tons (t) in WY 2013 to 13,900 t in WY 2018. Although the total annual SSL varied from year to year, the overall seasonal patterns of suspended sediment transport throughout each year were similar during monitoring in WY 2013-18. Suspended-sediment loads were low prior to the drawdown, then increased rapidly as lake levels lowered and approached the streambed. In the weeks following the drawdown period, as pool levels were increased, SSL remained slightly elevated above pre-drawdown levels but generally declined through the following winter and spring except during streamflow-driven pulses of suspended-sediment transport. WY 2013 had the greatest total computed SSL for each streambed drawdown and partial-year monitoring period. SSL computed for the partial-year period have generally decreased since WY 2013 and have varied by about 6,800 t with the exception of WY 2014. WY 2014 SSL reflects anomalously low sediment export due to low streamflows and freezing conditions that stabilized reservoir floor deposits. Bedload measurements in the short 1.4-km reach between Fall Creek Dam and the Fall Creek streamgage showed an inverse correlation between bedload transport rates and discharge, which probably reflects diminishing supply of coarse-sized sediment. Sand was more abundant (60–100 percent) than gravel in bedload samples confirming sand and finer-grained sediment dominated sediment evacuated from the reservoir during streambed drawdowns at Fall Creek Lake.

Chapter D. Geomorphic Responses to Fall Creek Lake Streambed Drawdowns Downstream from Fall Creek Dam

In the days, weeks, and months following streambed drawdown operations at Fall Creek Dam through WY 2018, sites downstream from the dam displayed a variety of geomorphic responses to reservoir sediment delivery within the main channel and overbank areas. Evaluation of streambed elevations at two streamgages located 1.4 km downstream from the dam on Fall Creek and 16.3 km downstream from the dam on the Middle Fork Willamette River indicated the effects of drawdown sediment on bed elevations were modest and transient. Repeat particle size measurements (October 2015 and September 2016) at five sites along Fall Creek and the Middle Fork Willamette River showed similar grain-sized distributions that do not reveal substantial deposition of fine-grained sediment related to the WY 2016 streambed drawdown. Altogether, these findings indicate that transport capacity in the main, low-flow channels of Fall Creek and Middle Fork Willamette River during WY 2012–18 was sufficient to mobilize and evacuate reservoir sediments from streambed drawdowns or other bank material and tributary sources. However, other monitoring for this study indicate low-velocity zones in off-channel areas are prime locations for sand and finer-grain sediment deposition. Patterns of overbank sediment accumulation indicate that the magnitude and timing of overbank deposition on bars and low-elevation floodplain varies with proximity to the dam, geomorphic setting, streamflows, and other factors. Sand and finer-grained reservoir sediments carried as suspended-sediment load in the reaches downstream from Fall Creek Dam were deposited in overbank areas as observed with clay-horizon markers during WY 2016–17. Overbank deposition quantified with Geomorphic Change Detection (GCD) software evaluated landform-scale patterns of erosion and deposition using repeat light detection and ranging (lidar) surveys at two sites in the Upper Fall Creek reach and one site in the Jasper reach for 3 years (2012–15) and one site in the Clearwater reach for 6 years (2009–15). Deposition thickness and spatial patterns from the GCD analysis were variable; some sites had dispersed but measurable deposition while at others, deposition was highly localized and exceeded 1 m in depth. Patterns of overbank deposition illustrate interactions among bar morphology, local hydraulics, and suspended-sediment transport dynamics that can create patches of highly localized deposition. The measured deposition at the two Fall Creek GCD sites likely resulted from reservoir sediments released from Fall Creek Lake during streambed drawdowns in WY 2016 and 2017 because the limited sediment inputs from bank material (geomorphically laterally stable reach) or tributaries (no significant tributaries) provided few other sediment sources. On the Middle Fork Willamette River, observed patterns of overbank deposition could reflect sediment sourced from upstream tributaries, bank erosion, or Fall Creek Lake streambed drawdown operations.

Despite the introduction of several thousand tons of reservoir sediment delivered from the Fall Creek Lake streambed drawdowns to below-dam river corridors, reach-scale mapping of channel features downstream from Fall Creek Dam shows minimal evidence of changes in channel planform or landforms that can be attributed to a drawdowns in WY 2012–16. On Upper Fall Creek reach, widespread increases in gravel bars or other in-channel sediment did not result from the five streambed drawdowns. The main changes attributable to sediment releases from Fall Creek Lake were localized increases in vegetated bar area, particularly on channel margin areas where sand and finer-grain sediment was deposited and rapidly colonized by vegetation. The area of mapped secondary water features decreased between 2005 and 2016, but that may be due to lower discharges depicted in the 2016 aerial photographs and less mapped area of inundation. Primary changes along the Lower Fall Creek reach include a 6.4 percent decrease in area of secondary water features between 2011 and 2016, and a nearly twofold increase in the area of unvegetated bars. Immediately downstream from the Fall Creek confluence, there were negligible changes in the location and areas of vegetated bars and the main wetted channel between 2005 and 2016, and local increases in bar area cannot be attributed solely to deposition of reservoir sediments from Fall Creek Lake because (1) areas along the Middle Fork Willamette River just upstream from the Fall Creek confluence display similar type and magnitude of changes and (2) some of the increases at the confluence area pre-date the drawdowns. The cumulative effect of sediment releases from Fall Creek Lake streambed drawdowns from WY 2012 to 2016 on downstream channel planform and landforms are modest compared to the river-scale transformations and planform changes that occurred in the decades following dam construction.

Chapter E. Discussion of Geomorphic Responses of Fall Creek and Middle Fork Willamette River to Streambed Drawdowns at Fall Creek Lake

Multiple aspects of Fall Creek Dam infrastructure and operations exert first-order controls on the magnitudes of reservoir erosion that occur during the streambed drawdowns and ultimately determine the sediment delivery to downstream reaches. Key aspects of the dam and its operations that are most relevant to assessing geomorphic responses to streambed drawdowns include the (1) dam infrastructure, including configuration and size of regulating outlets and their proximity to the streambed which dictates the capacity and competence of the river to deliver sediment to downstream reaches and mode of sediment transport as suspended-sediment load or bedload; (2) frequency of historical drawdowns and long-term, year-round dam operations and lake level management, which partly dictate reservoir morphology and locations and magnitudes of readily erodible materials; (3) dam operations and hydroclimatic conditions during the streambed drawdown (including length of the drawdown and streamflows entering the reservoir), which directly control the timing, duration and magnitude of reservoir erosion and sediment evacuation; and (4) dam operations following the streambed drawdown operation that regulate streamflows (and thereby sediment transport conditions) downstream of Fall Creek Dam which primarily reflect interactions between hydroclimatic conditions and flood control operations.

Patterns of sediment erosion and evacuation observed in this study at Fall Creek Lake from WY 2012–18 suggest that reservoir erosion during annual streambed drawdowns may remain similar or decrease in future years assuming (1) annual streambed drawdown operations are implemented in similar manner as the WY 2012–18 drawdowns (in terms of duration, late autumn or early winter implementation, rate of pool-level lowering to reach streambed, and other factors), (2) streambed drawdowns coincide with similar conditions as were observed WY 2012–18 (similar sediment yield into reservoir, low reservoir inflows, limited precipitation, moderate air temperature), and (3) no major geomorphic changes in the main reservoir channels of Fall and Winberry Creeks occur (for example, channel avulsion). Under such conditions, it is hypothesized that the stream channel within the reservoir would achieve a quasi-equilibrium state with respect to annual influx and export of sediment and aided by the substantial amount of in-channel bedrock, will remain laterally stable without erosion across reservoir deposits.

Patterns of sediment transport measured at the Fall Creek streamgage downstream from Fall Creek Dam provide insight into the potential effects of future streambed drawdowns at Fall Creek Lake. Analyses of suspended sediment measured in WY 2013–18 show a major reduction in suspended-sediment loads between WY 2013 and later years, indicating streamflows transporting sediment through the reservoir to downstream reaches during streambed drawdowns have become supply limited. The 6-year suspended-sediment monitoring and sampling program is insufficient to make predictions about future sediment transport conditions because of uneven monitoring periods and varying controls on reservoir sediment erosion. It is likely that future suspended-sediment loads will be variable but similar to those observed in WY 2015–18 if operational, climatic, and geomorphological factors remain similar to those monitored WY 2015–18. Suspended-sediment loads downstream from Fall Creek Lake will likely remain highest when regulating outlets are fully open and Fall Creek is free flowing with the reservoir fully drained with little to no residual pool. Over time, it is possible that the suspended-sediment loads would reflect mobilization of reservoir sediment deposited in the previous year rather than erosion of sediment deposited years or decades earlier. Bedload is likely to remain a small fraction of the total sediment load evacuated from the reservoir and is relatively modest compared with pre-dam bedload transport rates because most coarse sediment remains trapped by the dam.

If sediment releases from Fall Creek Lake and ensuing streamflow conditions follow a similar pattern in the future as was assessed in this study spanning WY 2012–18, near-term geomorphic adjustments downstream of the dam are expected to be modest. Barring major operational, climatic, and geomorphological changes, local site-scale deposition on bars, overbank areas, or off-channel features that persists several months after the streambed drawdown will likely continue to be highly variable, ranging from negligible to several centimeters of deposition. At the landform-scale, low velocity areas nearest to Fall Creek Dam will likely continue to undergo rapid deposition immediately during and after a streambed drawdown event, similar to patterns observed for WY 2012–18. Some of the sediment entering these off-channel features and margin areas may be temporarily stored, then later remobilized and dispersed farther downstream. But if newly deposited sediment persists through the following spring, there is a greater likelihood that local vegetation will establish, reinforce deposited material, and trap sediment during later drawdowns. The reach-scale geomorphic changes may become more apparent if (1) streambed drawdowns continued for several decades, and geomorphic changes were measured at decadal scales or (2) the amount of sediment introduced to downstream reaches substantially increased and (or) sediment transport capacity decreased. The continued streamflow regulation of Fall Creek Dam after sediment releases provides an opportunity to strategically manage streamflows during and after the streambed drawdowns to minimize downstream sediment impacts and ensure other operational thresholds are satisfied.

This study provides a comprehensive foundation of datasets and geomorphic analyses to inform dam operations at Fall Creek Lake, monitor sediment transport downstream, and consider operational schemes for future drawdowns. The datasets from this study also provide baselines of sediment transport and geomorphic conditions to assess future changes in reservoir and downstream environments. Future monitoring could be tailored to address specific questions regarding the long-term geomorphic effects of streambed drawdowns on fluvial habitats, flood hazards, cultural resources, or downstream water quality. Future monitoring activities could focus on the relevant geomorphic processes and spatial domains within the three categories used for this study: (1) reservoir erosion and net sediment evacuation, (2) sediment delivery to downstream reaches, including magnitude and temporal pattern of sediment transport, and (3) geomorphic responses of downstream reaches to sediment delivery. Specifically, high priority future monitoring activities could include:

  • Repeat topographic or photographic surveys in the reservoir to characterize changes occurring within individual drawdowns, to quantify sediment export, to determine temporal changes in reservoir storage, and to identify locations of erosion and deposition.
  • Continuous, year-round turbidity monitoring supplemented with suspended-sediment measurements at a streamflow-gaging station immediately downstream from the dam to quantify sediment export.
  • Repeat geomorphic monitoring, mapping, or modeling in downstream reaches to track changes in channel and over bank features using a combination of site- and reach-scale monitoring approaches. This could support assessments of sediment deposition and ensuing vegetation encroachment on flood hazards and habitats and examine how sediment transport and depositional processes may be affected by different sediment supply, streamflow, or dam management scenarios.
Publication Year 2024
Title Reservoir evolution, downstream sediment transport, downstream channel change, and synthesis of geomorphic responses of Fall Creek and Middle Fork Willamette River to water years 2012–18 streambed drawdowns at Fall Creek Lake, Oregon
DOI 10.3133/sir20235135
Authors Mackenzie K. Keith, J. Rose Wallick, Liam N. Schenk, Laurel E. Stratton Garvin, Gabriel W. Gordon, Heather M. Bragg
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2023-5135
Index ID sir20235135
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Oregon Water Science Center