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Spring mudflows at Wrightwood, Southern California

May 1, 1974

The Wrightwood area in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California is known as a site of recurring mudflow activity. The community of Wrightwood is built on the coalesced fans of Sheep, Acorn and Heath Creeks, and the fan deposits are probably chiefly of mudflow origin. Historically, mudflows there have been observed in association with three climatic conditions: (1) short period of high-intensity rainfall during the summer dry season (thunderstorms); (2) periods of heavy rainfall during the October-March winter season, when most of the year's rain and snow fall; and (3) thaw of the winter snow pack. The mudflow activity associated with heavy rainfall has generally been of only a few hours or at most a few days duration. Mudflow activity associated with spring thaw has been of longer duration, as much as several weeks. At various times in the past, mudflows generated by all three conditions have inundated homes and highways in the Wrightwood area, which is now defended by a flood control levee system.

During May and June, 1969 the rapid melting of a heavy snow pack resulted in a 40-day period of mudflow activity in Heath Creek. All flows originated in the steep upper reaches of Heath Creek, where steep ravines are incised in the toe of a large active landslide. Direct observation by the authors showed that flows formed when small masses of debris fell or slid from the surface of the landslide mass into the steep channel. Some of the masses were fluid enough to continue downstream without interruption; others stopped in the channel until remobilized by added melt water or the passage of a mudflow from a higher altitude. Both processes resulted in discrete ‘slugs’ which continued down the steep ravine, through an allu-viated canyon, to a fan where most of the debris was deposited.

The activity may be described as a spring mudflow cycle, within which three stages were observed in a gradational sequence. A waxing stage began with sporadic short-duration mudflows, during which the lower alluviated canyon floor of Heath Creek was aggraded. A climactic stage of larger mudflows at more frequent intervals and of longer duration was characterized by the incision of a single, narrow, U-shaped channel in the alluviated canyon floor, and transportation of debris as much as 2 miles (3.2 km) from the source. A waning stage followed as meltwater supply decreased; short-duration flows backfilled the U-shaped channel and spilled over the banks, again aggrading the alluviated canyon floor.

Publication Year 1974
Title Spring mudflows at Wrightwood, Southern California
DOI 10.1144/GSL.QJEG.1974.007.04.09
Authors D. M. Morton, R. H. Campbell
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology
Index ID 70209867
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center