The channel and arroyo of the Rio Puerco have continued to evolve since incision in the late 1800s. Resurveys of channel cross sections and aerial imagery over time indicate that between the 1970s and 1990s, the upstream reaches (type 1 morphology) of the Rio Puerco have continued to undergo construction of an incipient inner floodplain by means of vertical aggradation while simultaneously developing a narrower, but relatively shallow, channel. Downstream reaches (type 2 morphology) also show progressive channel width decrease, construction of a well-vegetated and mature inner floodplain, and deposition in the active channel, leading to an increase in the streambed elevation.
Trends in rainfall and streamflow cannot explain the observed decadal patterns in sediment deposition in the Rio Puerco. Analysis of streamflow shows that a large percentage of runoff originating in the upper watershed is entirely infiltrated into the streambed and floodplains between upstream and downstream reaches. With suspended-sediment concentrations reaching 500,000 mg/L, the loss of streamflow results in sediment deposition.
Peak streamflows are decreasing in the Rio Puerco near its mouth at Bernardo, New Mexico. Hydrographs were modeled using a 71-yr-old monumented channel cross section in the lower reaches (Highway 6) surveyed in 1936 and resurveyed in 2007. Model outputs show that attenuation of peak flow can occur from progressive changes in channel morphology and vegetation. Decreasing peak flows, transmission losses, and development of an inner floodplain within the widened arroyo all interact to increase sediment deposition over time. Consequently, increased sediment deposition has resulted in decreased sediment loads and sediment concentrations in downstream reaches. Resurveys of channels in downstream reaches confirm that the channel bed is aggrading. At the oldest surveyed cross section (Highway 6 surveyed in 1936 and resurveyed in 2007), the channel bed has aggraded 6 m, and at its long-term rate of filling, deposition of sediment could fill the entire arroyo cross section in 150 yr.
The Rio Puerco has incised and aggraded several times in the late Quaternary. Results of this study show that the twentieth-century aggradation of the Rio Puerco is driven by intrinsic processes that involve a positive feedback relation among channel morphology, vegetation, climate, streamflow, infiltration, and sediment loads.