The response of ephemeral alluvial streams to active tectonics is not as well established as those documented for perennial alluvial streams. This study documents the response of ephemeral streams transverse to growing folds along the north flank of the San Bernardino Mountains in southern California. The growing folds emerge amid a broad, sloping piedmont mantled by north-dipping alluvial fans and underlain by coarse, angular gravel and sand of mixed provenance. The study area contains fans composed of two distinct lithologies that control the expression of the folds. Sediment transport processes differ among alluvial perennial and ephemeral channels and play a primary role in defining the range of responses that ephemeral streams have to an actively rising fold. We find that ephemeral streams respond by (1) changing pattern from a single, slightly incised channel with well-defined banks to a braided channel upstream of the fold axis, (2) incising across the fold axis, preserving a terrace and braid bars, and (3) returning to a single-thread, less incised channel downstream of the fold axis. This channel response is documented for both a topographically obvious anticlinal fold, the Cougar Buttes anticline, as well as a suspected, but not topographically obvious anticline, the Pitzer Buttes anticline. Variations from this general model appear to be correlated with locations of slow fold growth and/or channel alluvium that is fine grained and of low cohesion. A growing fold, such as the Cougar Buttes anticline, provides a laboratory for the investigation of the development of transverse streams with respect to position along strike with the fold axis. Some streams crossing the Cougar Buttes anticline are antecedent, whereas others are consequent to the growth of the fold.
These observations lay the foundation for a conceptual model for ephemeral stream response to active tectonics, particularly useful in identifying previously unrecognized actively rising folds. In this study, the fold axis of the Cougar Buttes anticline is revealed to extend at least 1 km beyond its current obvious topographic expression. Because ephemeral streams are sensitive to tectonic deformation, they can be used locally in paleo-seismological investigations, regionally to understand the strain partitioning between the Big Bear and Mojave blocks, and conceptually to constrain geodynamic models investigating the interaction between surface processes and the geometry of and slip rates on faults responsible for fold growth.