Facies models for continental rift basins suggest longitudinal (axis-parallel) fluvial activity dominates sediment transport and deposition. In contrast, modern basins in the arid to semi-arid northern Basin and Range Province, USA, show axial drainage development to be characterized by short endorheic systems that contribute little to the basin fill. Mapping and calculation of the proportionate distribution of surficial facies of three representative basins at different stages of rift evolution show that basin fill is dominated by the deposits of transverse catchments, and axial fluvial deposits are restricted to a narrow corridor by the progradation of lateral systems. Drainage integration in these dryland rifts is limited by the moisture-stressed climate, with a resultant reduction in stream power, and the complex, tectonically-induced physiography, which limits potential drainage pathways. River systems that flow through multiple structural basins are rare, restricted to those systems with catchment headwaters lying outside the dryland climatic regime.
These data imply that long-range, axial fluvial deposits should not automatically be included as a significant part of dryland rift sedimentary facies models. Sediment routing pathways in ancient dryland rift systems may be much shorter than commonly predicted, so affecting the spatial distribution of lithofacies. Climate, therefore, has a much stronger control on drainage and lithofacies at all stages of rift development than is generally stated.