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The role of topographic variability in river channel classification


To date, subreach-scale variations in flow width and bed elevation have rarely been included in channel classifications. Variability in topographic features of rivers, however, in conjunction with sediment supply and discharge produces a mosaic of channel forms that provides unique habitats for sensitive aquatic species. In this study we investigated the utility of topographic variability attributes (TVAs) in distinguishing channel types and dominant channel formation and maintenance processes in montane and lowland streams of the Sacramento River basin, California, USA. A stratified random survey of 161 stream sites was performed to ensure balanced sampling across groups of stream reaches with expected similar geomorphic settings. For each site surveyed, width and depth variability were measured at baseflow and bankfull stages, and then incorporated in a channel classification framework alongside traditional reach-averaged geomorphic attributes (e.g., channel slope, width-to-depth, confinement, and dominant substrate) to evaluate the significance of TVAs in differentiating channel types. In contrast to more traditional attributes such as slope and contributing area, which are often touted as the key indicators of hydrogeomorphic processes, bankfull width variance emerged as a first-order attribute for distinguishing channel types. A total of nine channel types were distinguished for the Sacramento Basin consisting of both previously identified and new channel types. The results indicate that incorporating TVAs in channel classification provides a quantitative basis for interpreting nonuniform as well as uniform geomorphic processes, which can improve our ability to distinguish linked channel forms and processes of geomorphic and ecological significance.

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