Historical Changes to Channel Planform and Bed Elevations Downstream from Dams Along Fall Creek and Middle Fork Willamette River, Oregon, 1926–2016
Operation of large, multipurpose dams within the Middle Fork Willamette River Basin, Oregon, including the Fall Creek sub-basin, have disrupted natural streamflow and sediment transport regimes and fish passage along the river corridors. Documenting channel morphology, including channel planform, landforms, vegetation cover, and river channel elevations at multiple points in time spanning the 20th and early 21st centuries, is useful for characterizing net changes occurring in response to construction and operation of these dams. The U.S. Geological Survey assessed historical channel changes that occurred within the past century in response to the construction and operation of flood-control dams by evaluating planimetric datasets (from 1926 plan and profile surveys and 1936 and 2016 aerial photographs) and elevation datasets (from 1926 plan and profile surveys and 2015 light detection and ranging [lidar]). This study specifically focuses on the lower 27.3 kilometers (km) of the Middle Fork Willamette River and the lower 11.5 km of Fall Creek, or the reaches downstream from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Dexter Dam and Fall Creek Dam, to the confluence with Coast Fork Willamette River. Altogether, compilation and evaluation of datasets for Fall Creek and the Middle Fork Willamette River downstream from the dams provide a foundation for understanding:
- channel morphology and patterns of geomorphic stability prior to dam construction in 1926 and 1936;
- channel morphology and patterns of lateral and vertical stability of the early 21st century that reflect present-day (post-dam) streamflow and sediment regimes as of 2015–16; and
- geomorphic transformations of the river corridors in the decades following dam construction, including changes in planform and bed elevation (determined from water-surface elevations).
Findings from this study can be used to provide historical and geomorphic context for geomorphic responses to deep reservoir drawdowns on Fall Creek Lake that mobilize reservoir sediment downstream and informing other restoration and river-management activities; this report summarizes one component of a larger research effort to document the magnitude and spatial distribution of geomorphic responses to sediment releases from draining Fall Creek Lake.
As of 2016, the modern Fall Creek flows through a narrow, semi-alluvial channel that efficiently conveys water and sediment at typical streamflows downstream from Fall Creek Dam. This channel planform, including the positions and distributions of bars and secondary water features (side channels, alcoves, and ponds), generally reflects pre-dam conditions in 1936, suggesting relatively modest morphological adjustments resulted from reductions in sediment supply and alterations to peak streamflow after dam construction. The most substantial morphologic change detected over this period was a reduction in unvegetated gravel bars.
As of 2016, the modern Middle Fork Willamette River is a large, gravel-bed river that, despite substantial transformations in channel morphology and reduction in lateral dynamism following the construction of multiple upstream dams, remains a dominantly alluvial river. Prior to dam construction in 1926 and 1936, the reaches of the Middle Fork Willamette River downstream from Dexter Dam were laterally active with multi-thread and single-thread channels flanked by large, shifting gravel bars. Since streamflow regulation and other channel modifications in the mid-20th century, these reaches have become less laterally active and encompass a narrower floodplain corridor as abundant former gravel bars were converted to low-elevation floodplains colonized by young, dense forests. The Middle Fork Willamette River downstream from Dexter Dam has remained mostly vertically stable between 1926 and 2015, although localized segments possibly decreased in elevation as much as 2.3 meters.
Keith, M.K., Wallick, J.R., Gordon, G.W., and Bervid, H.D., 2023, Historical changes to channel planform and bed elevations downstream from dams along Fall Creek and Middle Fork Willamette River, Oregon, 1926–2016: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2023–5048, 34 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20235048.
ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)
Table of Contents
- References Cited
|Publication Subtype||USGS Numbered Series|
|Title||Historical changes to channel planform and bed elevations downstream from dams along Fall Creek and Middle Fork Willamette River, Oregon, 1926–2016|
|Series title||Scientific Investigations Report|
|Publisher||U.S. Geological Survey|
|Publisher location||Reston, VA|
|Contributing office(s)||Oregon Water Science Center|
|Description||Report: viii, 34 p.; Data Release|
|Other Geospatial||Fall Creek, Middle Fork Willamette River|
|Online Only (Y/N)||Y|
|Google Analytic Metrics||Metrics page|