Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)


Watershed Sciences


John C. Schmidt


Since the early 20th century, river channels of the Colorado River basin have narrowed, decreasing available riparian and aquatic habitat. Changes are considered to be the result of three major factors: wide-spread water development, increasing hydroclimate variability and the invasion of non-native tamarisk (Tamarix spp.), altering flow regime and sediment supply. Different studies have reached different conclusions about the relative roles of flow regime, sediment supply and tamarisk in causing narrowing.

I investigated channel change in the lower Green River within Canyonlands National Park to describe channel changes in the 20th century and understand the roles of shifting flow regime and changing vegetation communities on 20th century channel narrowing.

The lower Green River within Canyonlands National Park has narrowed substantially since the late 1800s, resulting in narrower channel. Changes to flood magnitude, rate and timing since 1900, driven by increased water storage and diversion in the Green River basin and declines in annual precipitation, was responsible for inset floodplain formation documented in this study.

I used multiple datasets to reconstruct the history of channel narrowing in the lower Green River and identify processes of floodplain formation. In the field, analyses of a floodplain trench were described to identify rate, timing and magnitude of floodplain formation. Channel and floodplain surveys were conducted to determine possible changes in bed elevation. Additionally, I analyzed existing aerial imagery, hydrologic data, and sediment transport data. I applied these techniques to determine how floodplain formation occurred at multiple spatial and temporal scales.

My investigation shows that the floodplains of the contemporary lower Green River began forming in the late 1930s and continued to form in the 20th century by inset floodplain formation. During this time period, peak flow and total runoff declined due to climatic changes and human water development. Since the mid-1980s, inset floodplains continued to develop along the lower Green River since the mid-1980s, narrowing the river by an additional 9.4%. Analysis of aerial imagery shows that changes to the floodplain identified in the trench occurred throughout the 61 km of river I studied. Non-native tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) did not drive channel narrowing, though dense stands stabilized banks and likely promoted sediment deposition. Inset floodplain formation reflects changes to flooding resulting from water development and climate change.

My findings have implications for the long-term management of the lower Green River and endangered endemic native fishes –particularly the Colorado pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius) and the razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus). Collaboration with upstream stakeholders and managers is necessary to preserve elements of the flow regime that preserve channel width and limit channel narrowing.