Sediment dynamics through space and time in the lower Rio Puerco arroyo, New Mexico

Friday, 19 December 2014
Eleanor R Griffin, Jonathan M Friedman and Kirk R Vincent, US Geological Survey, Boulder, CO, United States
The dynamics of riverine erosion and sediment transport can be episodic, spatially and temporally non-uniform, and strongly scale dependent. Identifying the events and processes that control these sediment dynamics requires precise measurements, but overcoming spatial and temporal variability requires observations over large distances and long times. Addressing this challenge, therefore, requires integration of data collection efforts at point, cross-section, reach, and whole-river scales. From the mid-1800s to about the 1930s, extreme high flows caused incision along the Rio Puerco, an ephemeral tributary of the Rio Grande located in semi-arid north-central New Mexico. The incision created an arroyo within the 1 to 2 km wide alluvial valley that by 1927 was an average of 118 m wide and 8.5 m deep. In the early 1900s, sediment transported from the Rio Puerco into the Rio Grande contributed to widespread flooding along the Rio Grande and concerns about filling of Elephant Butte Reservoir, located 100 km downstream. We reconstructed the history of arroyo evolution in a 55 km long segment of the lower Rio Puerco by combining data from 3 trenches excavated across the arroyo bottom with arroyo-scale information from aerial imagery, aerial light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data, longitudinal profiles, and repeat surveys of cross sections. We then examined changes through time since 1927 in arroyo width, depth, volume, morphology, and vegetation. A transition to filling after the 1930s involved vegetation development, channel narrowing, increased sinuosity, and finally vertical aggradation. This strongly depositional sediment transport regime interacted with floodplain shrubs to produce a characteristic narrow, trapezoidal channel. Our study reach demonstrated upstream progression of arroyo widening and filling, but not of arroyo incision, channel narrowing, or floodplain vegetation development. Since the 1970s, arroyo wall retreat has been mostly limited to locations where meanders impinge on the arroyo wall. Average annual net sediment deposition within the Rio Puerco study reach between 1955 and 2005 was 4.8 × 105 t/yr, which is 16% of the average annual suspended sediment yield, and 24% of the long-term bedrock denudation rate. At this rate, the arroyo could fill in about 310 yr.