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Log-jams and avulsions in the San Antonio River Delta, Texas


Jonathan D. Phillips, Tobacco Road Research Team, Department of Geography, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506–0027, USA. E-mail:


The San Antonio River Delta (SARD), Texas, has experienced two major avulsions in the past 80 years, and a number of other historical and Holocene channel shifts. The causes and consequences of these avulsions – one of which is ongoing – were examined using a combination of fieldwork, geographic information system (GIS) analysis, and historical information to identify active, semi-active, and paleochannels and the sequence of shifting flow paths through the delta. The role of deposition patterns and antecedent morphology, large woody debris jams, and tectonic influences were given special attention. Sedimentation in the SARD is exacerbated by tectonic effects. Channel aggradation is ubiquitous, and superelevation of the channel bed above the level of backswamp areas on the floodplain is common. This creates ideal setup conditions for avulsions, and stable, cohesive fine-grained banks favor avulsions rather than lateral migration. Flood basins between the alluvial ridges associated with the aggraded channels exist, but avulsions occur by re-occupation of former channels found within or connected to the flood basins. Large woody debris and channel-blocking log-jams are common, and sometimes displace flow from the channel, triggering crevasses. However, a large, recurring log-jam at the site of the ongoing avulsion from the San Antonio River into Elm Bayou is not responsible for the channel shift. Rather, narrow, laterally stable channels resulting from flow splits lead to accumulation of wood. Some aspects of the SARD avulsion regime are typical of other deltas, while others are more novel. These includes avulsions involving tributaries and subchannels within the delta as well as from the dominant channel; tectonic influences on delta backstepping and on channel changes within the delta; avulsions as an indirect trigger for log-jam formation (as well as vice-versa); and maintenance of a multi-channel flow pattern distinct from classic anastamosing or distributary systems. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.