Stratigraphy and depositional environments of the upper Pleistocene Chemehuevi Formation along the lower Colorado River

Professional Paper 1786
By: , and 



The Chemehuevi Formation forms a conspicuous, widespread, and correlative set of nonmarine sediments lining the valleys of the Colorado River and several of its larger tributaries in the Basin and Range geologic province. These sediments have been examined by geologists since J. S. Newberry visited the region in 1857 and are widely cited in the geologic literature; however their origin remains unresolved and their stratigraphic context has been confused by inconsistent nomenclature and by conflicting interpretations of their origin. This is one of the most prominent stratigraphic units along the river below the Grand Canyon, and the formation records an important event or set of events in the history of the Colorado River. Here we summarize what is known about these deposits throughout their range, present new stratigraphic, sedimentologic, topographic, and tephrochronologic data, and formally define them as a lithostratigraphic unit. The Chemehuevi Formation consists primarily of a bluff-forming mud facies, consisting of gypsum-bearing, horizontally bedded sand, silt, and clay, and a slope-forming sand facies containing poorly bedded, well sorted, quartz rich sand and scattered gravel. The sedimentary characteristics and fossil assemblages of the two facies types suggest that they were deposited in flood plain and channel environments, respectively. In addition to these two primary facies, we identify three other mappable facies in the formation: a thick-bedded rhythmite facies, now drowned by Lake Mead; a valley-margin facies containing abundant locally derived sediment; and several tributary facies consisting of mixed fluvial and lacustrine deposits in the lower parts of major tributary valleys. Observations from the subsurface and at outcrops near the elevation of the modern flood plain suggest that the formation also contains a regional basal gravel member. Surveys of numerous outcrops using high-precision GPS demonstrate that although the sand facies commonly overlies the mud facies where the two are found together, contacts between the two occur over a range in elevation, and as a consequence, the sand and mud facies are similarly distributed both horizontally and vertically throughout the valley. Collectively, the outcrops of the formation lie below a smooth elevation envelope that slopes 50 percent more steeply than the historic (pre-Hoover Dam) valley, from nearly 150 m above the historic flood plain near the mouth of the Grand Canyon to less than 30 m above the flood plain at the head of the flood plain near Yuma, Arizona. The steepness of the valley at the peak of aggradation probably represents a depositional slope. Layers of fine grained volcanic tephra have been found below and within the Chemehuevi Formation at five widely separated sites, one of which is now submerged beneath Lake Mead. Major element geochemistry of glass shards from the four accessible tephra sites were analyzed. Three of the sampled tephra layers are interbedded within the Chemehuevi Formation, and a fourth tephra conformably underlies the formation. The three interbedded tephra layers are similar enough to one another that they are probably from the same eruptive unit, hereafter referred to as the Monkey Rock tephra bed. The other sample, which locally underlies the formation, is similar enough to the Monkey Rock tephra bed to suggest it is from the same volcanic source area; however, it may not be from the same eruption, and thus may not be the same age. On the basis of the stratigraphic contexts of chemically similar tephra layers found elsewhere in the Basin and Range, we suspect that the source area is the Mammoth Mountain dome complex in Long Valley, east-central California. Two samples of proximal Mammoth Mountain pumice were analyzed and produced geochemical signatures similar to all four of the Chemehuevi Formation tephra, supporting Mammoth Mountain as a possible source area. The Mammoth Mountain volcanic center produced eruptions between about 111±2 and 57±2 ka and was most active in the later part of this time interval, during Marine Oxygen Isotope (MOI) stage 4 (between 74 and 59 ka ago). Chemically similar tephra in cores from Owens Lake and Walker Lake are approximately 70 and 74 ky old, based on age models of those cores. Other lines of stratigraphic evidence from nine tephra-containing sections in the Basin and Range are also consistent with an age assignment for the Monkey Rock tephra of ~72 ky, near the beginning of MOI stage 4. We propose to designate the Chemehuevi Formation as a formal lithostratigraphic unit, and propose as the type section a well exposed outcrop near the ranger station at Katherine Landing, Arizona, in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. This exposure shows the two dominant facies, an example of one of the four known tephra layers, and interbedded lenses of locally derived gravel. In the type section, as in many of the other examples of the formation, the sand facies overlies the mud facies on a conspicuous, abrupt erosional surface; however, nearby is a contiguous section demonstrating that the mud and sand facies interfinger. In addition to the type section, measured reference sections compiled here illustrate other important lithologic and stratigraphic features of the formation. Our preferred interpretation of the Chemehuevi Formation is that it contains the remnants of deposits formed during a single major episode of fluvial aggradation, during which the Colorado River filled its valley with a great volume of dominantly sand-size sediment. This would reflect an increase in the supply of sand-size sediment, and(or) a reduction in transport capacity below the mouth of Grand Canyon. The most likely cause for the aggradation is an extraordinary increase in sand supply, likely due to widespread climatic change. However, other explanations have not been ruled out. Other aggradation events predated the Chemehuevi Formation, and some smaller events may have postdated the formation. However, the Chemehuevi Formation contains the remnants of the most recent large magnitude (>100 m) aggradation of the Colorado River.
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Stratigraphy and depositional environments of the upper Pleistocene Chemehuevi Formation along the lower Colorado River
Series title Professional Paper
Series number 1786
DOI 10.3133/pp1786
Year Published 2011
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Western Region Geology and Geophysics Science Center
Description v, 69; Appendices
First page i
Last page 95
Country United States
State California;Nevada;Arizona
Other Geospatial Chemehuevi Formation;Colorado River
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
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