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11.7: Surface Water

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  • A stream or river is a body of flowing surface water confined to a channel. Terms such as creeks and brooks are social terms not used in geology. Streams are the most important agents of erosion and transportation of sediments on the earth’s surface. They create much of the surface topography and are an important water resource. Most of this section will focus on stream location, processes, landforms, and flood hazards. Water resources and groundwater processes will be discussed in later sections.

    11.6.1: Discharge

    Several factors cause streams to erode and transport sediment, but the two main factors are stream channel gradient and velocity. The stream gradient is the slope of the river channel. A steeper gradient promotes downward stream erosion. When tectonic forces lift up a mountain, the increased stream gradient causes the stream to erode downward and make a valley. Stream velocity is the speed of the flowing water in the channel. Velocity can increase by increasing the gradient, decreasing cross-sectional area (narrowing) of the channel (reducing friction), or by increasing the discharge.

    Stream size is measured in terms of discharge, i.e. the volume of water flowing past a point in the stream over a defined time interval. Smaller streams have a smaller discharge, therefore generally stream discharge increase downstream. Volume is commonly measured in cubic feet (length x width x depth), shown as feet3 or ft3. Therefore, the units of discharge are cubic feet per second (ft3/sec or cfs). Smaller streams have less discharge than larger streams. For example, the Mississippi River is the largest river in North America, with an average flow of about 600,000 cfs [19]. For comparison, the average discharge for the Jordan River at Utah Lake is about 574 cfs [20] and for the Amazon River (the world’s largest river), annual discharge is about 6,200,000 cfs [21].

    Discharge can be expressed by the following equation:

    Q = V A

    • Q = discharge (ft3/sec),
    • A = cross-sectional area of the stream channel [width times average depth] (in ft2),
    • V = average velocity (ft/sec).

    When the channel narrows but discharge remains constant, the same volume of water flows through a narrower space causing the velocity to increase, similar to putting a thumb over the end of a backyard water hose. In addition, during rainstorms or heavy snowmelt, runoffs will increase which increases stream discharge and thus velocity.

    Velocity varies within the stream channel as well. Generally, when the channel is straight and uniform in-depth, the highest velocity is in the center of the channel along the top of the water where it is the farthest from frictional contact with the channel bottom and sides. When the channel curves, the highest velocity will be on the outside of the bend.

    Thalweg of a river. In a river bend, the fastest moving particles are on the outside of the bend, near the cutbank.
    Figure: Thalweg of a river. In a river bend, the fastest moving particles are on the outside of the bend, near the cutbank. Stream velocity is higher on the outside bend and the surface which is farthest from the friction of the stream bed. Longer arrows indicate faster velocity (Earle 2015).

    11.6.2: Runoff vs. Infiltration

    There are many factors dictating whether water will infiltrate into the ground or runoff over the land after precipitation. These include but are not limited to the amount, type, and intensity of precipitation, the type and amount of vegetative cover, the slope of the land, the temperature and aspect of the land, preexisting conditions, and the type of soil in the area of infiltration. High-intensity precipitation as rain will cause more runoff than the same amount of rain spread out over a longer duration. If the rain falls faster than the properties of the soil allow it to infiltrate, then the water that cannot infiltrate becomes runoff. Dense vegetation can increase infiltration, as the vegetative cover slows the overland flow of water particles, giving them more time to infiltrate. If a parcel of land has more direct solar radiation and/or higher seasonal temperatures, there will likely be less infiltration and runoff, as evapotranspiration rates will be higher. As the slope of the land increases, so does runoff, as the water is more inclined to move downslope than infiltrate into the ground. Extreme examples are a basin and a cliff, where water infiltrates much quicker into a basin than a cliff having the same soil properties. Because saturated soil does not have the capacity to take more water, runoff is generally greater over-saturated soil. Clay rich soil cannot accept infiltration as quickly as gravel-rich soil.

    11.6.3: Drainage Patterns

    The pattern of tributaries within a region is called a drainage pattern. They depend largely on the type of rock beneath, and on structures within that rock (such as folds and faults). The main types of drainage patterns are dendritic, trellis, rectangular, radial, and deranged. Dendritic patterns are the most common and develop in areas where the underlying rock or sediments are uniform in character, mostly flat-lying, and can be eroded equally easily in all directions. Examples are alluvial sediments or flat-lying sedimentary rocks. Trellis patterns typically develop where sedimentary rocks have been folded or tilted and then eroded to varying degrees depending on their strength. The Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States have many good examples of trellis drainage. Rectangular patterns develop in areas that have very little topography and a system of bedding planes, joints, or faults that form a rectangular network. A radial pattern forms when streams flow away from a central high point such as a mountain top or volcano, with the individual streams typically having dendritic drainage patterns. In places with extensive limestone deposits, streams can disappear into the groundwater via caves and subterranean drainage and this creates a deranged pattern.

    Figure: Various stream drainage patterns.

    11.6.4: Fluvial Processes

    Fluvial processes are the mechanisms that dictate how a stream functions and include factors controlling fluvial sediment production, transport, and deposition. Fluvial processes include velocity, slope and gradient, erosion, transportation, deposition, stream equilibrium, and base level.

    Streams can be divided into three main sections: the many smaller tributaries in the source area, the main trunk stream in the floodplain and the distributaries at the mouth of the stream. These can be defined as zones of sediment production (erosion), transport, and deposition. The zone of sediment production is located in the headwaters of the stream. Downstream of the headwaters, the stream erodes less sediment but transports the sediment provided from the headwaters in the zone of sediment transfer. Lastly, most streams eventually flow into the ocean by a delta which is a zone of sediment deposition located at the mouth of a stream [6]. The longitudinal profile of a stream is a plot of the elevation of the stream channel at all points along its course and illustrates the location of the three zones [22].

    Zone of Sediment Production (Erosion)

    The zone of sediment production is located in the headwaters of a stream where rills and gullies erode sediment and contribute to larger tributary streams. These tributaries carry sediment and water further downstream to the main trunk of the stream. Tributaries at the headwaters have the steepest gradient and most sediment production and erosion, especially downward erosion, occur in the headwaters zone. Headwater streams tend to be narrow and straight with small or non-existent floodplains adjacent to the channel. Since the zone of sediment production is generally the steepest part of the stream, many headwaters are located in relatively high elevations. For example, the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Colorado contain much of the headwaters for the Colorado River which then flows from Colorado through Utah, Arizona, to Mexico.

    Zone of Sediment Transfer (Transportation)

    A stream carries dissolved load, suspended load, and bedload.
    Figure: A stream carries dissolved load, suspended load, and bedload.

    Streams transport sediment great distances from the headwaters to the ocean, the ultimate depositional basins. Sediment transportation is directly related to stream gradient and velocity. Faster and steeper streams can transport larger sediment grains. When velocity slows down, larger sediments settle to the channel bottom. When the velocity increases, those larger sediments are entrained and move again.

    Transported sediments are grouped into bedload, suspended load, and dissolved load. Sediments moved along the channel bed are the bedload and typically are the largest and densest. Bedload is moved by saltation (bouncing) and traction (being pushed or rolled along by the force of the flow). When stream velocity increases, smaller bedload sediments can be picked up by flowing water and held in suspension as suspended load. The faster streams can carry larger grains as suspended load. Dissolved load in a stream is the sum of the ions in solution from chemical weathering. The dissolved load includes ions such as bicarbonate (HCO3-), calcium (Ca2+), chloride (Cl-), potassium (K+), and sodium (Na+). The solubility of these ions is not affected by flow velocity.

    Profile of stream channel at bankfull stage, flood stage, and deposition of natural levee (Earle 2015).
    Figure: Profile of stream channel at bank-full stage, flood stage, and deposition of natural levee

    Stream flooding is a natural process that adds sediment to floodplains. A floodplain is the generally flat area of land located adjacent to a stream channel that is inundated with floodwater on a regular basis. A stream typically reaches its greatest velocity when it is close to flooding, known as the bank-full stage. As soon as the flooding stream overtops its banks and occupies the wide area of its floodplain, the velocity decreases. At this point, sediment that was being carried by the swiftly moving water is deposited near the edge of the channel, forming a low ridge or natural levée. In addition, sediments are added to the floodplain during this flooding process.

    Zone of Disposition

    The process of deposition occurs when bedload and suspended load come to rest on the bottom of the water column in a stream channel, lake, or ocean. The two major factors causing deposition are the decrease in stream gradient and the reduction in velocity. These can be associated with a decrease in discharge or increased in cross-sectional area. Deposition occurs temporarily in the zone of transportation such as along meandering stream point bars, floodplains, and alluvial fans (discussed later), however, ultimate deposition occurs at the mouth of the stream where it reaches a lake or ocean. These deposits at the mouth of a stream form landforms called deltas. Deposition at the mouth of a stream is generally of the finest sediment such as fine sand, silt, and clay, because as the stream exits its channel, the energy of the water is completely dispersed, causing the deposition of all particles in the stream.

    Equilibrium and Base Level

    Longitudinal Profile of a creek in Indiana, showing steep gradient in its headwaters and shallower gradients toward its mouth.
    Figure: Example of a longitudinal profile of a stream; Halfway Creek, Indiana

    All three stream zones are present in the typical longitudinal profile of a stream which plots the elevation of the channel at all points along its course (see figure). All streams have a long profile, some of which have been measured, plotted, and published. The long profile shows the stream gradient from headwater to mouth and represents the balance among erosion, transport, gradient, velocity, discharge, and channel characteristics at each point along the stream’s course. This balance is called equilibrium. When mountains are uplifted, streams become steeper which erodes downward cutting a valley. This uplift is balanced against downward erosion of the stream. Eventually, streams erode enough downward that the gradient is reduced, downward erosion slows, and the river starts to erode from side to side. This point is generally characterized by a stream with a floodplain [6].

    Another factor influencing equilibrium is the base level, the elevation of the stream’s mouth. The base level represents the lowest level to which a stream can erode. The ultimate base level is, of course, sea-level. A lake or reservoir may also represent the base level for a stream entering it. The Great Basin of western Utah, Nevada, and parts of some surrounding states contains no outlets to the sea and provides internal base levels for streams within it. The base level for a stream entering the ocean can change if sea-level rises or falls or if a natural or human-made dam is added along its profile. When base level is lowered, a stream will downcut and deepen its channel, perhaps into a canyon. When base level is raised, deposition increases along the stream profile as the river adjusts to the change and establishes a new state of equilibrium. River equilibrium is dynamic as the river adjusts to changes in base level, tectonics, climate, precipitation, sea level, and human activities along its course.

    11.6.5: Landforms

    Stream landforms are the land features formed on the surface by either erosion or deposition. The primarily stream-related landforms described here are related to channel types.

    Channel Types

    Braided stream pattern on the Waimakariri River in New Zealand.
    Figure: Braided stream pattern on the Waimakariri River in New Zealand.
    Air photo of the meandering river, Río Cauto, Cuba.
    Figure: Air photo of the meandering river, Río Cauto, Cuba.

    Stream channels can be straight, braided, meandering, or entrenched. The gradient, sediment load, discharge, and location of the base level all influence channel type. Straight channels are relatively straight, located near the headwaters, have steep gradients, low discharge, and narrow V-shaped valleys. Good examples of these are located in mountainous areas. Anastomosing streams, forming a network of branching and reconnecting channels are a variety of straight channels, formed in areas of high vegetation where the plant growth keeps the channel straight.

    Braided channels have multiple smaller channels splitting and recombining downstream creating numerous mid-channel bars. These are found in broad terrain with low gradients near sediment source areas such as mountains or in front of glaciers, for example in Alaska.

    Meandering channels are composed of a single channel that curves back and forth like a snake within its floodplain. Meandering channels tend to have a wide floodplain, high discharge, natural levees, and flood regularly. Meandering channels are usually located on low gradient slopes where the stream emerges from its headwaters into the zone of transportation and extends close to the zone of deposition at the stream’s mouth. In areas of uplift, like has occurred on the Colorado Plateau, meanders that formed on the upland can become entrenched or incised as the stream cuts its meandering pattern down into bedrock.

    Panoramic view of incised meanders of the San Juan River at Gooseneck State Park, Utah.
    Figure: Panoramic view of incised meanders of the San Juan River at Gooseneck State Park, Utah.

    Alluvial Fans

    Satellite image of alluvial fan in Iraq.
    Figure: Alluvial fan in Iraq seen by a NASA satellite. A stream emerges from the canyon and creates this cone-shaped deposit.

    Alluvial fans are a depositional landform created where streams emerge from mountain canyons into a valley. The channel that had been confined by the canyon walls and suddenly is no longer confined slows down and spreads out, dropping its bedload of all sizes, forming a delta in the air of the valley. As distributary channels fill with sediment, the stream is diverted laterally, and the alluvial fan develops into a cone shape with distributaries radiating from the canyon mouth. Alluvial fans are common in the dry climates of the West where ephemeral streams emerge from canyons in the ranges of the Basin and Range.

    Floodplains, Meandering Levels, and Natural Levees

    Satellite image of lower Mississippi River floodplain
    Figure: Landsat image of lower Mississippi River floodplain

    Many fluvial landforms occur in a floodplain near a meandering stream. A floodplain is the broad, mostly flat area next to a meandering river that is regularly flooded. A stream creates its floodplain as the channel meanders back and forth over thousands, even millions of years. Regular flooding contributes to creating the floodplain by eroding uplands next to the floodplain. The stream channels are confined by small natural levees that have been built up over many years of regular flooding. Natural levees can isolate flow from contributing channels from immediately reaching the main channel on the floodplain. The smaller isolated streams, called yazoo streams, will flow parallel to the main trunk stream until there is an opening in the levee to allow for a belated confluence [23].

    The location and width of floodplains naturally vary, however, humans build artificial levees on flood plains to limit flooding. Sediment that breaches the levees during flood stage is called crevasse splays delivering silt and clay into the floodplain. Floodplains are nutrient-rich from the fine-grained deposits and thus often make good farmland. Floodplains are also easy to build on due to their flat nature, however, when floodwaters crest over human-made levees, the levees quickly erode with potentially catastrophic impacts. Because of the good soils, farmers regularly return after floods and rebuild year after year.

    Sandy deposition at the inside of a bend (point bar) and erosion on the outside of the bend (cut bank) of a river in France.
    Figure: Point bar and cut bank on the Cirque de la Madeleine in France.

    Meandering rivers create additional landforms as the channel migrates within the floodplain. Meandering rivers erode side-to-side because the highest velocity water having the most capacity to erode is located on the outside of the bend. Erosion of the outside of the bend of a stream channel is called a cut bank and the meander extends its loop by this erosion. The thalweg of the stream is the deepest part of the stream channel. In the straight parts of the channel, the thalweg and highest velocity are in the center of the channel. But at the bend of a meandering stream, the thalweg moves to the cut bank. Opposite the cut bank on the inside bend of the channel is the lowest stream velocity and therefore becomes an area of deposition call a point bar.

    Meander nearing cutoff on the Nowitna River in Alaska
    Figure: Meander nearing cutoff on the Nowitna River in Alaska

    Through erosion on the outsides of the meanders and deposition on the insides, the channels of meandering streams move back and forth across their floodplain over time. Sometimes on very broad floodplains with very low gradients, the meander bends can become so extreme that they cut across themselves at a narrow neck (see figure). The former channel becomes isolated from streamflow and forms an oxbow lake seen on the right of the figure. Eventually, the oxbow lake fills in with sediment and becomes a wetland and eventually a meander scar. Stream meanders can migrate and form oxbow lakes in a relatively short amount of time. Where stream channels form geographic and political boundaries, this shifting of channels can cause conflicts.


    The area that contributes to the tributaries of the Mississippi River.
    Figure: Location of the Mississippi River drainage basin and Mississippi River delta.

    When a stream reaches a low energy body of water such as a lake or some parts of the ocean, the velocity slows and the bedload and suspended load sediment come to rest, forming a delta. If wave erosion from the water body is greater than deposition from the river, the deposition will not occur and a delta will not form. The largest and most famous delta in the United States is the Mississippi River delta formed where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River drainage basin is the largest in North America, draining 41% of the contiguous U.S. [24]. Because of the large drainage area, the river carries a large amount of sediment that is supplied to the delta. The Mississippi River is a major shipping route and human engineering has ensured that the channel no longer meanders significantly within the floodplain. In addition, the river has been artificially straightened so that it meanders less and is now 229 km shorter than it was before humans began engineering it [24]. Because of these restraints, the delta is now solely focused in one area and thus has created a “bird’s foot” pattern. These two NASA images of the delta (follow the link) show how the shoreline has retreated and the land was inundated with water while deposition of sediment was located at end of the delta. These images have changed over a 25 year period from 1976 to 2001. These are stark changes illustrating sea level rise and land subsidence from the compaction of peat due to the lack of sediment resupply [25].

    Figure: Before (left) vs. After (right)

    The formation of the Mississippi River delta started about 7500 years ago when postglacial sea level stopped rising. In the past 7000 years, prior to anthropogenic modifications, the Mississippi River delta had several lobes that were sequentially created by the river, abandoned for a shorter route to the Gulf of Mexico, then reworked by the ocean waves of the Gulf of Mexico [26]. After the lobes were abandoned by the river, isostatic depression and compaction of the sediments caused basin subsidence (e.g. the mass and compaction of the new sediments caused the land to sink).

    Delta in Quake Lake Montana. Deposition of this delta began in 1959, when the Madison river was dammed by the landslide caused by the 7.5 magnitude earthquake.
    Figure: Delta in Quake Lake Montana. The deposition of this delta began in 1959 when the Madison River was dammed by the landslide caused by the 7.5 magnitude earthquake.

    A clear example of how deltas form came from an unlikely source, an earthquake. During the 1959 Madison Canyon 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Montana, a large landslide dammed the Madison River forming Quake Lake [27], which is still there today. A small tributary stream that once flowed into the Madison River now flows into Quake Lake where a delta has been forming since. This a modern example of a Gilbert-type delta, which is a delta composed primarily of coarse material actively eroded from the mountainous upthrown block to the north.

    Deltas represent stream deposits protruding into a quiet water body and can be further categorized as wave-dominated or tide-dominated. Wave-dominated deltas occur where the tides are small and wave energy dominates. An example is the Nile River delta in the Mediterranean Sea that has the classic shape like the Greek character (Δ) from which the landform is named. A tide-dominated delta is when ocean tides are powerful and influence the shape of the delta. For example, Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta in the Bay of Bengal (near India and Bangladesh) is the world’s largest delta and mangrove swamp called the Sundarban.

    Tide-dominated delta of the Ganges River

    Sundarban Delta in Bangladesh, a tide-dominated delta of the Ganges River Tidal forces creates linear segments in the delta shoreline by ocean intrusion into the delta deposits. This delta also holds the world’s largest mangrove swamp, and incidentally is the only place where the Bengal tiger still actively hunts humans as prey.

    The Nile Delta is a triangular patch of green in an otherwise sandy brown area.
    Figure: Nile Delta showing its classic “delta” shape.

    Special Topic: Ancient Deltas in Lake Bonneville

    Contours of the Logan Delta, incised by the Logan River.
    Figure: Map of the Logan Delta

    Lake Bonneville was a large, pluvial lake that occupied the western half of Utah and parts of eastern Nevada from about 30,000 to 12,000 years ago [30]. The lake filled to a maximum elevation as great as approximately 5100 feet above the mean sea level, covering the basins, leaving the mountains exposed, many as islands. The presence of the lake allowed for deposition of fine-grained lake mud and silt, as well as coarse gravels entrained by mountain streams that lost their sediment load and energy to the open water of the lake. The lake’s average surface elevation varied over its existence. The variations in lake level were controlled by regional climate and a catastrophic failure of Lake Bonneville’s main outlet, Red Rock Pass [31]. Extended periods of time where the lake level remained stable caused wave-cut terraces that can be seen today on the flanks of many mountains in the region and allowed for the development of large deltaic deposits at the mouths of major canyons in Salt Lake, Cache, and other valleys. As the lake regressed to its remnant, the Great Salt Lake, the rivers that created the deltaic deposits incised stream valleys through the same deposits.

    Figure: Deltaic deposits of Lake Bonneville near Logan, Utah.

    Entrenched Meanders

    Figure: Entrenched meander of the Colorado River, downstream of Page, Arizona.

    In some rare cases, uplift will occur on a low-gradient landscape with a meandering river. This effectively increases the gradient of the stream causing it to erode downward instead of side-to-side. An example of this process is where the Colorado River and other streams crossed the Colorado Plateau as meandering streams. As the Colorado Plateau has uplifted over the past several million years, the Colorado River has incised into the flat-lying rocks of the plateau by hundreds of feet.

    The Rincon is an abandoned meander loop on the entrenched Colorado River in Lake Powell.
    Figure: The Rincon is an abandoned meaner loop on the entrenched Colorado River in Lake Powell.

    The entrenched meanders continue to experience lateral erosion. The Rincon on the entrenched Colorado River at Lake Powell is an incised oxbow lake. Another excellent example of entrenched meanders is Goosenecks State Park, Utah, where the San Juan River is deeply entrenched into the Colorado Plateau.

    To summarize, an entrenched channel occurs when a meandering channel rapidly down cuts due to a drop in base level. This causes the original meandering shape to be preserved within a deeply entrenched channel. This channel type is rare worldwide but is common in the Colorado Plateau region which is a broad flat area near four-corners where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. For example, the Green, Colorado, and San Juan Rivers famously form entrenched channels.

    A winding river cut deep through hundreds of feet of rock. The San Juan River incised the flat Colorado Plateau at Goosenecks State Park, southeastern Utah.
    Figure: The San Juan River has incised meanders into the flat Colorado Plateau at Goosenecks State Park, southeastern Utah.


    Stream terraces are remnants of older floodplains located above the existing floodplain and river. Like entrenched meanders, stream terraces form when uplift occurs or base level drops and streams erode downward, leaving behind their old floodplains. In other cases, stream terraces can form from extreme flood events associated with retreating glaciers. A classic example of multiple stream terraces is along the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming [32, 33].

    Landscape with river cutting into plane. Three different levels of flat surfaces that represent different base levels.
    Figure: Terraces along the Snake River, Wyoming.
    River along several different levels of flat floodplains
    Figure: Terraces in Glen Roy, Scotland


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