A Model of Beaver Meadow Complex Evolution in the Silvies River Basin, Oregon.
Abstract:There is increasing evidence to suggest that the pervasive incision seen in the American West is due, in part, to the removal of beaver (Castor canadensis) in the first half of the 19th century. New restoration strategies for these systems focus on the reintroduction of beaver and construction of beaver dam analogs. Such dams locally raise streams beds and water tables, reconnect incised channels to their former floodplains, trap sediment, increase hydraulic diversity, and promote riparian vegetation.
However, the geomorphic and hydrologic impacts of both the original beaver dams and their analogs are poorly understood. Observations in the Silvies River basin in Oregon, USA - an upland, semi-arid catchment with extremely high historic beaver populations and a presently recovering population, inform a conceptual model for valley floor evolution with beaver dams. The evolution of the beaver dam complex is characterized by eight stages of morphologic adjustment: water impoundment, sediment deposition, pond filling, multi-thread meadow creation, dam breaching, channel incision, channel widening, and floodplain development. Well-constructed beaver dams, given sufficient time and sediment flux, will evolve from a series of ponds to a multi-threaded channel flowing through a wet meadow complex. If a dam in the system fails, due to overtopping, undercutting, lack of maintenance, or abandonment, the upstream channel will concentrate into a single channel and incise, followed over time by widening once critical bank heights are exceeded.
From stratigraphic, dendrochronologic, and geomorphic measurements, we are constraining average timescales associated with each stage’s duration and transitional period. Measured sedimentation rates behind modern beaver dam analogs on five stream systems permit calculation of sediment flux over recent time periods, and aid in developing regional rates of sediment deposition over a range of drainage areas and gradients. Stratigraphic and dendrochronologic records provide insight into rates of incision, widening, and floodplain development. These measurements are leading to an understanding of the timescales associated with each morphologic stage and transition period, as well as the long-term implications of reintroducing beaver into a wide range of stream systems.