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Keywords:

  • fluvial terraces;
  • sediment supply;
  • climate;
  • range of variability

ABSTRACT

Effective river management strategies require an understanding of how fluvial processes vary both spatially and temporally. Here, we examine the natural range of variability in the Conejos River Valley, southern Colorado, through documentation of terrace morphostratigraphic and sedimentological characteristics as well as through investigation of sediment contributions from headwaters, hillslopes and tributary streams. Additionally, soil development and radiocarbon ages, together with local and regional paleoclimate reconstructions, were used to infer the range of processes acting in this system.

Since de-glaciation, the Conejos River has fluctuated between episodes of bedrock strath formation, aggradation and vertical incision. Morphostratigraphic relationships, soil development and radiocarbon ages enable us to propose a chronology for periods of alluvial deposition (around 8·9–7·6 ka, 5·5 ka and from 3·5 to 1·1 ka), separated by intervals of fluvial incision. We infer potential forcing mechanisms by utilizing multiple working hypotheses. Specifically, we discuss the potential for increases in sediment supply during periods of (1) para-glacial adjustment, (2) climatic cooling, (3) increased frequency of climate change and (4) increased fire frequency or severity. We also consider the effects of changes in stream discharge and extreme storm occurrence. We conclude that combinations of these processes, operating at different times, have contributed to sediment mobilization since de-glaciation. Stream and landform morphology also varies longitudinally due to the influence of remnant glacial topography. In particular, valley bottom overdeepening at tributary junctions has resulted in incision and strath formation into unlithified glacial deposits (i.e. fill-cut terraces) rather than bedrock in some reaches. Overall, the Conejos fluvial system has varied significantly both temporally and spatially since de-glaciation and appears to be sensitive to changes in sediment supply related to Holocene scale climate fluctuations. This natural range of variability must therefore be a key consideration in any future stream management policies. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.