Preliminary assessment of channel stability and bed-material transport in the Tillamook Bay tributaries and Nehalem River basin, northwestern Oregon

Open-File Report 2012-1187
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon Department of State Lands
By: , and 



This report summarizes a preliminary study of bed-material transport, vertical and lateral channel changes, and existing datasets for the Tillamook (drainage area 156 square kilometers [km2]), Trask (451 km2), Wilson (500 km2), Kilchis (169 km2), Miami (94 km2), and Nehalem (2,207 km2) Rivers along the northwestern Oregon coast. This study, conducted in coopera-tion with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Oregon Department of State Lands to inform permitting decisions regarding instream gravel mining, revealed that:

  • Study areas along the six rivers can be divided into reaches based on tidal influence and topography. The fluvial (nontidal or dominated by riverine processes) reaches vary in length (2.4-9.3 kilometer [km]), gradient (0.0011-0.0075 meter of elevation change per meter of channel length [m/m]), and bed-material composition (a mixture of alluvium and intermittent bedrock outcrops to predominately alluvium). In fluvial reaches, unit bar area (square meter of bar area per meter of channel length [m2/m]) as mapped from 2009 photographs ranged from 7.1 m2/m on the Tillamook River to 27.9 m2/m on the Miami River.

  • In tidal reaches, all six rivers flow over alluvial deposits, but have varying gradients (0.0001-0.0013 m/m) and lengths affected by tide (1.3-24.6 km). The Miami River has the steepest and shortest tidal reach and the Nehalem River has the flattest and longest tidal reach. Bars in the tidal reaches are generally composed of sand and mud. Unit bar area was greatest in the Tidal Nehalem Reach, where extensive mud flats flank the lower channel.

  • Background factors such as valley and channel confinement, basin geology, channel slope, and tidal extent control the spatial variation in the accumulation and texture of bed material. Presently, the Upper Fluvial Wilson and Miami Reaches and Fluvial Nehalem Reach have the greatest abundance of gravel bars, likely owing to local bed-material sources in combination with decreasing channel gradient and valley confinement.

  • Natural and human-caused disturbances such as mass movements, logging, fire, channel modifications for navigation and flood control, and gravel mining also have varying effects on channel condition, bed-material transport, and distribution and area of bars throughout the study areas and over time.

  • Existing datasets include at least 16 and 18 sets of aerial and orthophotographs that were taken of the study areas in the Tillamook Bay tributary basins and Nehalem River basin, respectively, from 1939 to 2011. These photographs are available for future assessments of long-term changes in channel condition, bar area, and vegetation establishment patterns. High resolution Light Detection And Ranging (LiDAR) surveys acquired in 2007-2009 could support future quantitative analyses of channel morphology and bed-material transport in all study areas.

  • A review of deposited and mined gravel volumes reported for instream gravel mining sites shows that bed-material deposition tends to rebuild mined bar surfaces in most years. Mean annual deposition volumes on individual bars exceeded 3,000 cubic meters (m3) on Donaldson Bar on the Wilson River, Dill Bar on the Kilchis River, and Plant and Winslow Bars on the Nehalem River. Cumulative reported volumes of bed-material deposition were greatest at Donaldson and Dill Bars, totaling over 25,000 m3 per site from 2004 to 2011. Within this period, reported cumulative mined volumes were greatest for the Donaldson, Plant, and Winslow Bars, ranging from 24,470 to 33,940 m3.

  • Analysis of historical stage-streamflow data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey on the Wilson River near Tillamook (14301500) and Nehalem River near Foss (14301000) shows that these rivers have episodically aggraded and incised, mostly following high flow events, but they do not exhibit systematic, long-term trends in bed elevation.

    Multiple cross sections show that channels near bridge crossings in all six study areas are dynamic with many subject to incision and aggradation as well as lateral shifts in thalweg position and bank deposition and erosion.

  • In fluvial reaches, unit bar area declined a net 5.3-83.6 percent from 1939 to 2009. The documented reduction in bar area may be attributable to several factors, including vegetation establishment and stabilization of formerly active bar surfaces, lateral channel changes and resulting alterations in sediment deposition and erosion patterns, and streamflow and/or tide differences between photographs. Other factors that may be associated with the observed reduction in bar area but not assessed in this reconnaissance level study include changes in the sediment and hydrology regimes of these rivers over the analysis period.

  • In tidal reaches, unit bar area increased on the Tillamook and Nehalem Rivers (98.0 and 14.7 percent, respectively), but declined a net 24.2 to 83.1 percent in the other four tidal reaches. Net increases in bar area in the Tidal Tillamook and Nehalem Reaches were possibly attributable to tidal differences between the photographs as well as sediment deposition behind log booms and pile structures on the Tillamook River between 1939 and 1967.

  • The armoring ratio (ratio of the median grain sizes of a bar's surface and subsurface layers) was 1.6 at Lower Waldron Bar on the Miami River, tentatively indicating a relative balance between transport capacity and sediment supply at this location. Armoring ratios, however, ranged from 2.4 to 5.5 at sites on the Trask, Wilson, Kilchis, and Nehalem Rivers; these coarse armor layers probably reflect limited bed-material supply at these sites.

  • On the basis of mapping results, measured armoring ratios, and channel cross section surveys, preliminary conclusions are that the fluvial reaches on the Tillamook, Trask, Kilchis, and Nehalem Rivers are currently sediment supply-limited in terms of bed material - that is, the transport capacity of the channel generally exceeds the supply of bed material. The relation between transport capacity and sediment is more ambiguous for the fluvial reaches on the Wilson and Miami Rivers, but transport-limited conditions are likely for at least parts of these reaches. Some of these reaches have possibly evolved from sediment supply-limited to transport-limited over the last several decades in response to changing basin and climate conditions.

  • Because of exceedingly low gradients, all the tidal reaches are transport-limited. Bed material in these reaches, however, is primarily sand and finer grain-size material and probably transported as suspended load from upstream reaches. These reaches will be most susceptible to watershed conditions affecting the supply and transport of fine sediment.

  • Compared to basins on the southwestern Oregon coast, such as the Chetco and Rogue River basins, these six basins likely transport overall less gravel bed material. Although tentative in the absence of actual transport measurements, this conclusion is supported by the much lower area and frequency of bars and longer tidal reaches along all the northcoast rivers examined in this study.

  • Previous studies suggest that the expansive and largely unvegetated bars visible in the 1939 photographs are primarily associated with voluminous sedimentation starting soon after the first Tillamook Burn fire in 1933. However, USGS studies of temporal bar trends in other Oregon coastal rivers unaffected by the Tillamook Burn show similar declines in bar area over approximately the same analysis period. In the Umpqua and Chetco River basins, historical declines in bar area are associated with long-term decreases in flood magnitude. Other factors may include changes in the type and volume of large wood and riparian vegetation. Further characterization of hydrology patterns in these basins and possible linkages with climate factors related to flood peaks, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, could support inferences of expected future changes in vegetation establishment and channel planform and profile.

  • More detailed investigations of bed-material transport rates and channel morphology would support assessments of lateral and vertical channel condition and longitudinal trends in bed material. Such assessments would be most practical for the fluvial study areas on the Wilson, Kilchis, Miami, and Nehalem Rivers and relevant to several ongoing management and ecological issues pertaining to sand and gravel transport. Tidal reaches may also be logical subjects for indepth analysis where studies would be more relevant to the deposition and transport of fine sediment (and associated channel and riparian conditions and processes) rather than coarse bed material.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Preliminary assessment of channel stability and bed-material transport in the Tillamook Bay tributaries and Nehalem River basin, northwestern Oregon
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2012-1187
DOI 10.3133/ofr20121187
Year Published 2012
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Oregon Water Science Center, Volcano Hazards Program
Description viii, 120 p.
Country United States
State Oregon
Other Geospatial Kilchis River, Miami River, Nehalem River, Tillamook River, Trask River, Wilson River
Datum North American Datum of 1983
Projection Universal Transverse Mercator, Zone 10 North
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details