Sediment supply controls equilibrium channel geometry in gravel rivers

TitleSediment supply controls equilibrium channel geometry in gravel rivers
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsPfeiffer AM, Finnegan NJ, Willenbring JK
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Date Published2017/03

In many gravel-bedded rivers, floods that fill the channel banks create just enough shear stress to move the median-sized gravel particles on the bed surface (D50). Because this observation is common and is supported by theory, the coincidence of bankfull flow and the incipient motion of D50 has become a commonly used assumption. However, not all natural gravel channels actually conform to this simple relationship; some channels maintain bankfull stresses far in excess of the critical stress required to initiate sediment transport. We use a database of >300 gravel-bedded rivers and >600 10Be-derived erosion rates from across North America to explore the hypothesis that sediment supply drives the magnitude of bankfull shear stress relative to the critical stress required to mobilize the median bed surface grain size (τbf*/τc*). We find that τbf*/τc* is significantly higher in West Coast river reaches (2.35, n = 96) than in river reaches elsewhere on the continent (1.03, n = 245). This pattern parallels patterns in erosion rates (and hence sediment supplies). Supporting our hypothesis, we find a significant correlation between upstream erosion rate and local τbf*/τc* at sites where this comparison is possible. Our analysis reveals a decrease in bed surface armoring with increasing τbf*/τc*, suggesting channels accommodate changes in sediment supply through adjustments in bed surface grain size, as also shown through numerical modeling. Our findings demonstrate that sediment supply is encoded in the bankfull hydraulic geometry of gravel bedded channels through its control on bed surface grain size.

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