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River-evolution and tectonic implications of a major Pliocene aggradation on the lower Colorado River: The Bullhead Alluvium

March 26, 2015

The ∼200-m-thick riverlaid Bullhead Alluvium along the lower Colorado River downstream of Grand Canyon records massive early Pliocene sediment aggradation following the integration of the upper and lower Colorado River basins. The distribution and extent of the aggraded sediments record (1) evolving longitudinal profiles of the river valley with implications for changing positions of the river’s mouth and delta; (2) a pulse of rapid early drainage-basin erosion and sediment supply; and (3) constraints on regional and local deformation.

The Bullhead Alluvium is inset into the Hualapai and Bouse Formations along a basal erosional unconformity. Its base defines a longitudinal profile interpreted as the incised end result after the Colorado River integrated through lake basins. Subsequent Bullhead aggradation, at ca. 4.5–3.5 Ma, built up braid plains as wide as 50 km as it raised the Colorado River’s grade. We interpret the aggradation to record a spike in sediment supply when river integration and base-level fall destabilized and eroded relict landscapes and Tertiary bedrock in the Colorado River’s huge catchment.

Longitudinal profiles of the Bullhead Alluvium suggest ≥200 m post-Bullhead relative fault uplifts in the upper Lake Mead area, >100 m local subsidence in the Blythe Basin, and deeper subsidence of correlative deltaic sequences in the Salton Trough along the Pacific–North American plate boundary. However, regionally, for >500 km along the river corridor from Yuma, Arizona, to Lake Mead, Arizona and Nevada, the top of the Bullhead Alluvium appears to be neither uplifted nor tilted, sloping 0.5–0.6 m/km downstream like the gradient of a smaller late Pleistocene aggradation sequence. Perched outcrops tentatively assigned to the Bullhead Alluvium near the San Andreas fault system project toward a Pliocene seashore or bayline twice as distant (300–450 km) as either the modern river’s mouth or a tectonically restored 4.25 Ma paleoshore. We conclude that Bullhead aggradation peaked after 4.25 Ma, having lengthened the delta plain seaward by outpacing both 2 mm/yr delta subsidence and 43–45 mm/yr transform-fault offset of the delta. Post-Bullhead degradation started before 3.3 Ma and implies that the river profile lowered and shortened because sediment supply declined, and progradation was unable to keep up with subsidence and plate motion in the delta.

Publication Year 2015
Title River-evolution and tectonic implications of a major Pliocene aggradation on the lower Colorado River: The Bullhead Alluvium
DOI 10.1130/GES01059.1
Authors Keith A. Howard, Kyle House, Rebecca J. Dorsey, Phillip A. Pearthree
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Geosphere
Index ID 70202791
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center