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Surficial geology of the lower Comb Wash, San Juan County, Utah

March 1, 2002

The surficial geologic map of lower Comb Wash was produced as part of a master’s thesis for Northern Arizona University Quaternary Sciences program. The map area includes the portion of the Comb Wash alluvial valley between Highway 163 and Highway 95 on the Colorado Plateau in southeastern Utah. The late Quaternary geology of this part of the Colorado Plateau had not previously been mapped in adequate detail. The geologic information in this report will be useful for biological studies, land management and range management for federal, state and private industries.

Comb Wash is a south flowing ephemeral tributary of the San Juan River, flanked to the east by Comb Ridge and to the west by Cedar Mesa (Figure 1). The nearest settlement is Bluff, about 7 km to the east of the area. Elevations range from 1951 m where Highway 95 crosses Comb Wash to 1291 m at the confluence with the San Juan River. Primary vehicle access to lower Comb Wash is provided by a well-maintained dirt road that parallels the active channel of Comb Wash between Highway 163 and Highway 95. For much of the year this road can be traversed without the aid of four-wheel drive. However, during inclement weather such as rain or snow the road becomes treacherous even with four-wheel drive. The Comb Wash watershed is public land managed by the Bureau of Land management (BLM) office in Monticello, Utah.

The semi-arid climate of Comb Wash and the surrounding area is typical of the Great Basin Desert. Temperature in Bluff, Utah ranges from a minimum of –8° C in January to a maximum of 35° C in July with a mean annual temperature of 9.8° C (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1999). The difference between day and nighttime temperatures is as great as 20° C. Between 1928 and 1998, annual rainfall in Bluff averaged 178 mm per year (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1999). Annual rainfall in Comb Wash averaged 240 mm per year from 1991 to 1999 while Bluff received an average of 193 mm for the same 8 year period. Most precipitation is monsoonal, convective storms that bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico beginning in early July and ending by October. Large frontal storms during December and January are responsible for most winter precipitation (Figure 2). The record from U.S. Geological Survey gauging station number 09379000 operated by the BLM from 1959 through 1968 indicates that Comb Wash flows in direct response to precipitation events. Most daily discharge and peak events occur in late July through September, coinciding with high intensity monsoon thunderstorms.

Comb Wash supports a variety of vegetation typical of the Great Basin Desert and the northern desert shrub zone as described by Fowler and Koch (1982). On the lower alluvial terraces, bushes and shrubs dominate the vegetation, including: sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata), rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus), fourwing saltbush (Atriplex canescens), winterfat (Eurotia lanata), greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus), and shadscale (Atriplex concertifolia). Juniper trees (Juniperus osteosperma) can be found on the rocky colluvial slopes near Comb Ridge and on the higher terrace near Cedar Mesa. The floodplain contains an abundance of riparian vegetation including cottonwood (Populus fremontii), willow (Salix exigua), and tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima). Tamarisk is one of 7 non-native species present in the lower Comb Wash watershed.

At least seven known species of noxious weeds have invaded the watershed, including Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), field bindweed (Convolvulus avensis), Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), Russian knapweed (Centaurea repens), tamarisk and camel thorn (Alhagi pseudalhagi). Of these, tamarisk or salt-cedar has most aggressively colonized the southwestern United States, including the San Juan watershed. Graf (1978) estimates that since the late 19th century, tamarisk has spread at a rate of 20 km per year. Tamarisk first appeared in Comb Wash during the mid to early 20th century based on photographs taken by Gregory in the early 1900’s (Gregory, 1938).

Citation Information

Publication Year 2001
Title Surficial geology of the lower Comb Wash, San Juan County, Utah
DOI 10.3133/ofr01424
Authors Claire I. Longpré
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2001-424
Index ID ofr01424
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Climate Science Center