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The Role of Hydrologic Alteration and Riparian Vegetation Dynamics in Channel Evolution along the Lower Minnesota River

Published by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, St. Joseph, Michigan

Citation:  Transactions of the ASABE. 56(2): 549-561. (doi: 10.13031/2013.42686) @2013
Authors:   Christian F. Lenhart, Mikhail L. Titov, Jason S. Ulrich, John L. Nieber, Britta J. Suppes
Keywords:   Channel evolution Floodplain deposition Minnesota River Phosphorus Riparian vegetation.

The Minnesota River carries the largest load of sediment to the Mississippi River in Minnesota, most of which comes from channel sources. This study investigates bank retreat in the lower Minnesota River since 1938. Specifically we asked, How have changes to river form influenced sediment transport and deposition in the lower Minnesota River and how did hydrological and ecological processes affect channel change? It was hypothesized that channel straightening, reduction in floodplain access, and streamflow increases contribute to increased channel-derived sediment load and decreased point bar deposition. Secondly, it was hypothesized that hydrologic changes have reduced woody riparian vegetation on sandbars, further promoting channel widening. To quantify channel sediment and phosphorus loading rates in the lower Minnesota River, we analyzed historic aerial photos for evidence of channel change, we performed long-term monitoring of erosion and deposition rates within the river corridor, and we calculated channel sediment transport rates. Results from this study showed that the Minnesota River has widened by 52% between Mankato and St. Paul since 1938, on average contributing 280,000 Mg of sediment per year and 153 Mg total phosphorus. The river also shortened by 7% since 1938, increasing bankfull shear stress and stream power. Sediment deposition rates in the floodplain have increased since European settlement by an order of magnitude. Ecohydrological studies showed that establishment of woody riparian plants has been inhibited on sandbars by prolonged summer flow duration and scour at high flow, reducing potential point bar growth. Findings from this study will be useful in prioritizing sediment and vegetation management actions.

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