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Post-disturbance sediment recovery: Implications for watershed resilience

Author(s): Sara Rathburn, Scott M. Shahverdian, Sandra E. Ryan
Year Published: 2017

Sediment recovery following disturbances is a measure of the time required to attain pre-disturbance sediment fluxes. Insight into the controls on recovery processes and pathways builds understanding of geomorphic resilience. We assess post-disturbance sediment recovery in three small (1.5–100 km2), largely unaltered watersheds within the northern Colorado Rocky Mountains affected by wildfires, floods, and debris flows. Disturbance regimes span 102 (floods, debris flows) to 103 years (wildfires). For all case studies, event sediment recovery followed a nonlinear pattern: initial high sediment flux during single precipitation events or high annual snowmelt runoff followed by decreasing sediment fluxes over time. Disturbance interactions were evaluated after a high-severity fire within the South Fork Cache la Poudre basin was followed by an extreme flood one year post-fire. This compound disturbance hastened suspended sediment recovery to pre-fire concentrations 3 years after the fire. Wildfires over the last 1900 YBP in the South Fork basin indicate fire recurrence intervals of ~600 years. Debris flows within the upper Colorado River basin over the last two centuries have shifted the baseline of sediment recovery caused by anthropogenic activities that increased debris flow frequency. An extreme flood on North St. Vrain Creek with an impounding reservoir resulted in extreme sedimentation that led to a physical state change. We introduce an index of resilience as sediment recovery/disturbance recurrence interval, providing a relative comparison between sites. Sediment recovery and channel form resilience may be inversely related because of high or low physical complexity in streams. We propose management guidelines to enhance geomorphic resilience by promoting natural processes that maintain physical complexity. Finally, sediment connectivity ywithin watersheds is an additional factor to consider when establishing restoration treatment priorities.

Citation: Rathburn SL, Shahverdian SM, Ryan SE. 2017. Post-disturbance sediment recovery: Implications for watershed resilience. Geomorphology (2017), 15 p. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.geomorph.2017.08.039
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - Second Order, Soils
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 16527
Record updated: Jan 31, 2018