Abstract

A recent hypothesis suggests that fluvial processes in areas of the eastern United States are strongly influenced by the demise of colonial mill dams, rather than reflecting a quasi-equilibrium adjustment to the current hydrologic and sediment regime. We evaluated the control of colonial mill dams on twentieth and twenty-first century bank erosion rates on the South River, Virginia, through studies of historical aerial photographs, historical documents, hydrologic and climatic records, and hydraulic modeling. Historical sources and aerial photographs document eight colonial mill dams along the study reach in the early twentieth century; all but one of these dams disappeared in the 1950s, and the last was breached by 1976. From initially low values between 1937 and 1957, mean bank erosion rates increased by more than a factor of 2 after 1957, remaining high through 2005. Accelerated bank erosion rates cannot be explained by changes in storm intensity, the frequency of freeze-thaw cycles, or by changes in the density of riparian trees. Hydraulic modeling suggests that mill dams reduced velocities of the 5 yr flood through ~80% of our study reach. By considering the timing of mill dam loss, the spatial extent of backwater influence, and the locations of our study sites, we find that the loss of mill dams explains the observed trends in bank erosion rates at 9 (and possibly 10) of our 14 monitoring sites. These results support the hypothesis that the demise of mill dams has been an important influence on fluvial processes in the region.

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