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Reservoir effects on downstream river channel migration



Human occupation and development of alluvial river floodplains are adversely affected by river channel lateral migration, which may range as high as several hundred metres per year. Reservoirs that reduce the frequency and duration of high flows typically reduce lateral migration rates by factors of 3 to 6. The ecology of riverine corridors is dependent upon the processes of erosion and sedimentation, which lead to lateral migration. Multiple-objective use of floodplains adjacent to active rivers therefore requires tools for assessing the probability and magnitude of channel movements. Existing approaches for predicting river channel movement may be classified as empirical or mechanistic, and are inadequate for widespread application. The Missouri River downstream from Fort Peck Dam in Montana, a major alluvial river with flow highly perturbed by regulation, was selected for case study. Maps and aerial photographs were available before and after dam construction. This imagery was analysed by digitizing channel centrelines at successive coverages under pre-dam and post-dam conditions, and mean migration rates were computed by bend and by reach. The mean rate of channel centreline migration fell from 6.6 m yr-1 to 1.8 m yr-1 after impoundment. Bend-mean channel activity rates were only weakly correlated with variables describing channel form and geometry. Results indicate that flow regulation for flood control and hydropower production typical of the study reach had profound effects on river corridor dynamism, with implications for habitat type distribution and ecosystem integrity.


Corresponding author

Correspondence: Dr F.D. Shields, Jr Tel: +1 601 232 2919 Fax: +1 601 232 2915 e-mail:



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