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Keywords:

  • Active rifting;
  • avulsions;
  • fault growth;
  • fluvial;
  • palaeohydraulics

Deposits of the ancestral Rio Grande (aRG) belonging to the Camp Rice Formation are preserved and exposed in the uplifted southern portion of the Robledo Mountains horst of the southern Rio Grande rift. The sediments are dated palaeomagnetically to the Gauss chron (upper Pliocene). The lower part of the succession lies in a newly discovered palaeocanyon cut into underlying Eocene rocks whose margins are progressively onlapped by the upper part. Detailed sedimentological studies reveal the presence of numerous river channel and floodplain lithofacies, indicative of varied deposition in channel bar complexes of low-sinuosity, pebbly sandbed channels that traversed generally dryland floodplains and shifted in and out of the study area five times over the 1 Myr or so recorded by the succession. Notable discoveries in the deposits are: (1) complexes of initial avulsion breakout channels at the base of major sandstone storeys; (2) common low-angle bedsets ascribed to deposition over low-angle dunes in active channels; (3) palaeocanyon floodplain environments with evidence of fluctuating near-surface water tables. Sand-body architecture is generally multistorey, with palaeocurrents indicative of funnelling of initial avulsive and main fluvial discharge from the neighbouring Mesilla basin through a narrow topographic gap into the palaeocanyon and out over the study area. An avulsion node was evidently located at the stationary southern tip to the East Robledo fault during Gauss times, with aRG channels to the north flowing close to the fault and preventing fan progradation. Subsequent Matuyama growth of the fault caused (1) deposition to cease as the whole succession was uplifted in its footwall, (2) development of a thick petrocalcic horizon, and (3) fan progradation into the Mesilla basin. Parameters for the whole aRG fluvial system are estimated as: active single channels 2 m deep and 25 m wide; valley slope 0·24–0·065°; maximum mean aggradation rate 0·05 mm year–1; major channel belt avulsion interval 200 ky; individual channel recurrence interval 100 ky; minimum bankfull mean flow velocity 1·54 m s–1, minimum single-channel discharge 77 m3 s–1, bed shear stress 22·3 N m–2; and stream power 34·3 W m–2.