The Quaternary erosional history of western Colorado is documented in terraces of the Colorado, Gunnison, and Uncompahgre Rivers that contain the Lava Creek B ash (0.64 Ma). This paper reports an important new ash locality that dates ca. 100-m-high river gravels associated with the paleo-confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers upstream from Grand Junction. Provenance analysis reveals paleo-Gunnison River gravels (containing granite and gneiss clasts) and paleo-Uncompahgre River gravels (containing Uncompahgre Group quartzite and San Juan volcanic field rocks). The paleo-Uncompahgre River gravels are 3 m directly beneath Lava Creek B ash, and the areal distribution of terraces indicates that this area was the paleo-confluence between the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers. This confluence has shifted 11 km to the east since 0.64 Ma due to events related to stream piracy and drainage reorganization. Gunnison terrace straths near the paleo-confluence are estimated to be 106 m above the modern strath, giving an estimated incision rate of 165 m/Ma.
Because of excellent age and geologic control, this is one of the best incision-rate data points in the upper Colorado River system. It is similar to previously reported regional rates, but is substantially lower than upstream incision rates in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. This dated Gunnison River terrace anchors the projection of Lava Creek B-bearing Grand Mesa pediment surfaces (e.g., Petrie Mesa) to regional base level and helps constrain a regional reconstruction of the 0.64-Ma profile of the paleo-Gunnison River. This reconstruction shows dramatic differences in incision rate in the Gunnison River system since 0.64 Ma, and that a transient knickpoint migrated past Sawmill Mesa prior to 0.64 Ma. This incision data point has important implications for evaluating major Quaternary changes in the configuration of this part of the Rocky Mountain drainage system. It also provides evidence for a young, disequilibrium drainage system that is responding to base-level changes downstream driven by a stream capture event, which in turn may have been driven by tectonic or climatic perturbations.