Closure of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963 transformed the Colorado River by reducing the magnitude and duration of spring floods, increasing the magnitude of base flows, and trapping fine sediment delivered from the upper watershed. These changes caused the channel downstream in Glen Canyon to incise, armor, and narrow. This study synthesizes over 45 yr of channel-change measurements and demonstrates that the rate and style of channel adjustment are directly related to both natural processes associated with sediment deficit and human decisions about dam operations. Although bed lowering in lower Glen Canyon began when the first cofferdam was installed in 1959, most incision occurred in 1965 in conjunction with 14 pulsed high flows that scoured an average of 2.6 m of sediment from the center of the channel. The average grain size of bed material has increased from 0.25 mm in 1956 to over 20 mm in 1999. The magnitude of incision at riffles decreases with distance downstream from the dam, while the magnitude of sediment evacuation from pools is spatially variable and extends farther downstream. Analysis of bed-material mobility indicates that the increase in bed-material grain size and reduction in reach-average gradient are consistent with the transformation of an adjustable-bed alluvial river to a channel with a stable bed that is rarely mobilized.
Decreased magnitude of peak discharges in the post-dam regime coupled with channel incision and the associated downward shifts of stage-discharge relations have caused sandbar and terrace erosion and the transformation of previously active sand-bars and gravel bars to abandoned deposits that are no longer inundated. Erosion has been concentrated in a few pre-dam terraces that eroded rapidly for brief periods and have since stabilized. The abundance of abandoned deposits decreases downstream in conjunction with decreasing magnitude of shift in the stage-discharge relations. In the downstream part of the study area where riffles controlling channel elevation have not incised, channel narrowing has resulted from decreased magnitude of peak discharges and minor post-dam deposition. These physical changes to the aquatic and riparian systems have supported the establishment and success of an artifact ecosystem dominated by non-native species.
Models for the channel response downstream from large dams typically consider factors such as the degree of sediment deficit, the pre-dam surface and subsurface grain size, and the magnitude of post-dam average flows. These results suggest that it is also necessary to consider (1) the possibility of variable responses among different channel elements and (2) the potential importance of exceptional flows resulting from management decisions.