Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center

Prepared in cooperation with Utah State University

U.S. Geological Survey
Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5042
version 1.0

Update on Regulation of Sand Transport in the Colorado River by Changes in the Surface Grain Size of Eddy Sandbars over Multiyear Timescales

By David J. Topping, David M. Rubin, and John C. Schmidt


photo taken very close up of sand grains
Sand grains on the surface of a Colorado River eddy sandbar (USGS photo by David Rubin)


In settings where the transport of sand is partially or fully supply limited, changes in the upstream supply of sand are coupled to changes in the grain size of sand on the bed. In this manner, the transport of sand under the supply-limited case is “grain-size regulated.” Since the closure of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, the downstream reach of the Colorado River in Marble and Grand Canyons has exhibited evidence of sand-supply limitation. Sand transport in the river is now about equally regulated by changes in the discharge of water and changes in the grain sizes of sand on the channel bed and eddy sandbars. Previous work has shown that changes in the grain size of sand on the channel bed (driven by changes in the upstream supply of sand owing to both tributary floods and high dam releases) are important in regulating sand transport over timescales of days to months. In this study, suspended-sand data are analyzed in conjunction with bed grain-size data to determine whether changes in the sand grain size on the channel bed, or changes in the sand grain size on the surface of eddy sandbars, have been more important in regulating sand transport in the postdam Colorado River over longer, multiyear timescales. The results of this study show that this combined theory- and field-based approach can be used to deduce which environments in a complicated setting are most important for regulating sediment transport. In the case of the regulated Colorado River in Marble and upper Grand Canyons, suspended-sand transport has been regulated mostly by changes in the surface grain size of eddy sandbars.

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For questions about the content of this report, contact David Topping

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Also of interest

USGS Fact Sheet 2008-3011: Science Activities Associated with Proposed 2008 High-Flow Experiment at Glen Canyon Dam, by John Hamill

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