Water Resources of Colorado

Channel-Pattern Adjustments and Geomorphic Characteristics of Elkhead Creek, Colorado, 1937–97

by John G. Elliott and Stevan Gyetvai

Available from the U.S. Geological Survey, Information Services, Box 25286, Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225, USGS Water-Resources Investigations Report 99-4098, 39 p., 9 figs.

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Onsite channel surveys and sediment measurements made in 1997, aerial photographs taken from 1937 through 1993, and streamflowgaging- station record from 1954 to 1996 were used to determine the probable cause of accelerated streambed and streambank erosion in the lower reaches of Elkhead Creek, a perennial, meandering tributary of the Yampa River. Concern about the possible effects of Elkhead Reservoir, constructed in 1974, has been expressed by landowners living downstream. Evidence cited as an indication of reservoirrelated effects include the trapping of bedloadtransported sediment in the reservoir, vertical incision of the streambed, and lateral erosion causing loss of agricultural land. A large deltaic deposit composed of approximately 163 acre-ft of bedload-transported sediment formed in Elkhead Reservoir between 1974 and 1993, the contemporary bankfull stage of Elkhead Creek is several feet below the elevation of a broad terrace that previously was the flood plain, and lateral erosion at meander bends occurs at a higher rate than in previous periods at some locations.

Elkhead Creek meander migration rates were used as a measure of lateral instability in the study reaches. Meander migration rates based on changes in channel centerline position were calculated for three periods from five sets of rectified aerial photographs for reaches upstream and downstream from the reservoir. The creek upstream from Elkhead Reservoir was unaffected by impoundment and was used as the control reach. Mean meander migration rates in the downstream study reach were 1.2 ft/yr from 1938 to 1953, 2.5 ft/yr from 1954 to 1970, and 4.8 ft/yr from 1978 to 1993, compared to rates of 0.5 ft/yr, 1.6 ft/yr, and 6.6 ft/yr for the same periods in the upstream study reach.

Sediment and channel-geometry measurements and estimated hydraulic conditions at eight cross sections indicate that most of the sediment sizes represented in the streambed are mobile at frequently occurring streamflows; those streamflows are less than or equal to the bankfull discharge of approximately 1,800 to 2,200 cubic feet per second. Discharge data from 1954 through 1996 recorded at a site upstream from the reservoir were examined to determine the effect of hydrology on meander migration rates. The discharge data were assumed to be representative of the total streamflow and flood hydrology of both the upstream and downstream reaches because Elkhead Reservoir normally has a full pool. Mean annual streamflow increased 122 percent, and the mean annual flood increased 130 percent from the pre-regulation period (1954 to 1970) to the post-regulation period (1978 to 1993), a possible explanation for much of the increase observed in meander migration rate in both the upstream and downstream reaches in the period after reservoir construction.

Channel instability, quantified by meander migration rates, has increased throughout Elkhead Creek since 1977. The most probable cause is a combination of external factors affecting the entire watershed, such as changes in annual runoff and flood magnitude and sedimentation in Elkhead Reservoir. Local land-use practices, such as intentional meander cutoff and riparian vegetation removal, also can decrease channel stability, but these factors were not addressed in this study.

Table of Contents



Purpose and Scope


Study Area

Geographic Setting


Channel-Pattern Adjustments and Geomorphic Characteristics


Aerial Photography

Planimetric Geomorphology

Cross-Sectional Geomorphology

Sediment Size

Shear Stress and Sediment Entrainment

Sedimentation in Elkhead Reservoir

Factors Affecting Channel-Pattern Adjustments

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited

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Water Resources of Colorado

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