The channel of the lower Rio Grande in the Big Bend region rapidly narrows during years of low mean and peak flow. We conducted stratigraphic, sedimentologic, and dendrogeomorphic analyses within two long floodplain trenches to precisely reconstruct the timing and processes of recent floodplain formation. We show that the channel of the Rio Grande narrowed through the oblique and vertical accretion of inset floodplains following channel-widening floods in 1978 and 1990–1991. Vertical accretion occurred at high rates, ranging from 16 to 35 cm/yr.
Dendrogeomorphic analyses show that the onset of channel narrowing occurred during low-flow years when channel bars obliquely and vertically accreted fine sediment. This initial stage of accretion occurred by both bed-load and suspended-load deposition within the active channel. Vegetation became established on top of these fine-grained deposits during years of low peak flow and stabilized these developing surfaces. Subsequent deposition by moderate floods (between 1.5 and 7 yr recurrence intervals) caused additional accretion at rapid rates. Suspended-sediment deposition was dominant in the upper deposits, resulting in the formation of natural levees at the channel margins and the deposition of horizontally bedded, fining-upward deposits in the floodplain trough. Overall, channel narrowing and floodplain formation occurred through an evolution from active-channel to floodplain depositional processes. High-resolution dendrogeomorphic analyses provide the ability to specifically correlate the flow record to the onset of narrowing, the establishment of riparian vegetation, the formation of natural levees, and ultimately, the conversion of portions of the active channel to floodplains.