Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)



Department name when degree awarded


Committee Chair(s)

Joel L. Pederson (Committee Co-Chair), John C. Schmidt (Committee Co-Chair)


John C. Schmidt


Joel L. Pederson


David Tarboton


Brad Ritts


The Green River canyons of the eastern Uinta Mountains have experienced a 5-year period of high debris flow activity. Catchment factors were studied in watersheds and on debris fans with recent debris flows, leading to the development of a conceptual framework of the hillslope and debris flow processes that deliver sediment to the Green River. Two recent fan deposits were monitored to determine the magnitude and processes of reworking that occur during mainstem floods of varying magnitude.

The dominant debris flow initiation mechanism, termed the firehose effect, occurs when overland flow generated on bedrock slopes cascades down steep cliffs and saturates and impacts colluvium stored in bedrock hollows, causing failure. The dry climate and high strength of bedrock cause hillslopes to be weathering-limited, prohibiting the formation of extensive regolith and vegetative cover. This reduces the degree vegetation regulates geomorphic processes and causes wildfire to have little influence on debris flow initiation. The dry climate and strong rocks also lead to high runoff ratios and steep escarpments that result in debris flow initiation via the firehose effect. This initiation process also dominates in Grand Canyon, where geologic and topographic characteristics are similar, but differs from locations in the Rocky Mountains where fire has a strong influence on debris flow processes.

Monitoring of two recently aggraded debris fans shows that mainstem floods with magnitudes as low as 75% of the pre-dam 2-year flood cause significant erosion of fan deposits, whereas floods with magnitudes less than 40% of the pre-dam 2-year flood do little reworking. Armoring of the debris fan surface limited the degree of reworking done by successive floods. Eroded material was deposited directly downstream of the fan, not at the expansion gravel bar. This depositional location represents a change in the organization of the fan-eddy complex, potentially altering the location of recirculating eddies and associated backwater habitats.

These results indicate that the firehose effect may be the dominant initiation processes in the steep canyons of the Colorado Plateau and that dam releases that significantly rework fan deposits are within the operational range of large dams in the Colorado River system.



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