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Sediment storage and transport in the Nooksack River basin, northwestern Washington, 2006–15

April 8, 2019

The Nooksack River is a dynamic gravel-bedded river in northwestern Washington, draining off Mount Baker and the North Cascades into Puget Sound. Working in cooperation with the Whatcom County Flood Control Zone District, the U.S. Geological Survey studied topographic, hydrologic, and climatic data for the Nooksack River basin to document recent changes in sediment storage, long-term bed elevation trends, rates of sediment transport, and factors influencing surficial drainage in order to support ongoing river management. Differences in elevations between topographic and bathymetric surveys in 2005/06 and 2013/15 indicate the active channel aggraded about 1–2 feet locally near the cities of Ferndale and Everson but was primarily stable between them. The active channel upstream of Nugent’s Corner generally incised. Total incision upstream of Nugent’s Corner to Glacier Creek generated 2.3 ± 1.7 million cubic yards of sediment from 2005/06 to 2013 and likely represented a significant source of coarse sediment to the lower mainstem river over that time.

Long-term records of local channel-bed elevation, derived from U.S. Geological Survey streamgage data, show bed-elevation changes of about 1–3 feet. The river bed at most streamgages exhibits long-term trends, with relatively consistent rates of change on the order of 1 foot per decade that persist years to decades. Lagged correlations in bed-elevation trends at all seven streamgages in the North Fork Nooksack and mainstem Nooksack suggest that decadal periods of persistent aggradation and incision originate in the North Fork and translate downstream. The channel-change signal propagates downstream 0.5–2.5 miles per year, with the rate of propagation scaling closely with channel slope. The pattern of incision and aggradation in the North Fork correlates with regional climate, where persistent incision follows extended cold and wet periods, and persistent aggradation follows extended warm and dry periods. Climate-driven variation in coarse-sediment delivery, primarily from the North Fork Nooksack, then appears to be a strong control on long-term vertical channel adjustments at sites downstream. The downstream-translating climate signal generated in the North Fork would account for recently observed aggradation at Everson and Ferndale but not the observed incision in unconfined reaches upstream of Nugent’s Corner from 2005–06 to 2013. This mismatch indicates that understanding how changes in sediment-supply influence those unconfined reaches remains a key uncertainty for predicting future channel change.

Continuous turbidity monitoring integrated with suspended sediment and limited bedload sampling were used to calculate annual sediment loads at five sites in the basin. The sediment load in the lower river at Ferndale ranged from 0.78 to 1.17 million tons per year and averaged 0.97 million tons per year for WYs 2012–17. Suspended sediment made up 93 percent of the load, and bedload made up 7 percent. Most of the fine sediment load of the lower river is supplied from headwaters of the North, Middle, and South Fork Nooksack basins, with relatively little net increase in fine sediment loads in the lower mainstem basin. The three forks supply approximately equal proportions of the lower-river fine sediment load. However, the glacially sourced North and Middle Fork Nooksack basins carry a notably sandier suspended-sediment load than the South Fork Nooksack.

A comparison of monthly streamflow and precipitation trends since 1981 indicate statistically significant increases in total spring precipitation and the number of spring days with measurable precipitation in much of the basin, as well as increases in mean spring river stage near Ferndale. Since no trends in mean spring discharge are observed, the trends in river stage are attributed primarily to observed changes in bed elevation. Changes in bed elevation and precipitation may then both have plausibly impacted field drainage in the lower river below Ferndale.