Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Variability in eddy sandbar dynamics during two decades of controlled flooding of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

November 22, 2017

Sandbars are iconic features of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, Arizona, U.S.A. Following completion of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, sediment deficit conditions caused erosion of eddy sandbars throughout much of the 360 km study reach downstream from the dam. Controlled floods in 1996, 2004, and 2008 demonstrated that sand on the channel bed could be redistributed to higher elevations, and that floods timed to follow tributary sediment inputs would increase suspended sand concentrations during floods. Since 2012, a new management protocol has resulted in four controlled floods timed to follow large inputs of sand from a major tributary. Monitoring of 44 downstream eddy sandbars, initiated in 1990, shows that each controlled flood deposited significant amounts of sand and increased the size of subaerial sandbars. However, the magnitude of sandbar deposition varied from eddy to eddy, even over relatively short distances where main-stem suspended sediment concentrations were similar. Here, we characterize spatial and temporal trends in sandbar volume and site-scale (i.e., individual eddy) sediment storage as a function of flow, channel, and vegetation characteristics that reflect the reach-scale (i.e., kilometer-scale) hydraulic environment. We grouped the long-term monitoring sites based on geomorphic setting and used a principal component analysis (PCA) to correlate differences in sandbar behavior to changes in reach-scale geomorphic metrics. Sites in narrow reaches are less-vegetated, stage changes markedly with discharge, sandbars tend to remain dynamic, and sand storage change dominantly occurs in the eddy compared to the main channel. In wider reaches, where stage-change during floods may be half that of narrow sites, sandbars are more likely to be stabilized by vegetation, and floods tend to aggrade the vegetated sandbar surfaces. In these locations, deposition during controlled floods is more akin to floodplain sedimentation, and the elevation of sandbar surfaces increases with successive floods. Because many sandbars are intermediate to the end members described above, high-elevation bar surfaces stabilized by vegetation often have a more dynamic unvegetated sandbar on the channel-ward margin that aggrades and erodes in response to controlled flood cycles. Ultimately, controlled floods have been effective at increasing averaged sandbar volumes, and, while bar deposition during floods decreases through time where vegetation has stabilized sandbars, future controlled floods are likely to continue to result in deposition in a majority of the river corridor.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2018
Title Variability in eddy sandbar dynamics during two decades of controlled flooding of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon
DOI 10.1016/j.sedgeo.2017.11.007
Authors Erich R. Mueller, Paul E. Grams, Joseph E. Hazel, John C. Schmidt
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Sedimentary Geology
Series Number
Index ID 70194325
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center