Headcut Erosion in Wyoming’s Sweetwater Subbasin
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Increasing human population and intensive land use combined with a warming climate and chronically diminished snowpacks are putting more strain on water resources in the western United States. Properly functioning riparian systems slow runoff and store water, thus regulating extreme flows; however, riparian areas across the west are in a degraded condition with a majority of riparian systems not in proper functioning condition, and with widespread catastrophic erosion of water-storing peat and organic soils. Headcuts are the leading edge of catastrophic channel erosion. We used aerial imagery (1.4–3.3-cm pixel) to locate 163 headcuts in riparian areas in the Sweetwater subbasin of central Wyoming. We found 1-m—the generally available standard resolution for land management—and 30-cm pixel imagery to be inadequate for headcut identification. We also used Structure-from-Motion models built from ground-acquired imagery to model 18 headcuts from which we measured soil loss of 425–720 m3. Normalized by channel length, this represents a loss of 1.1–1.8 m3 m−1 channel. Monitoring headcuts, either from ground or aerial imagery, provides an objective indicator of sustainable riparian land management and identifies priority disturbance-mitigation areas. Image-based headcut monitoring must use data on the order of 3.3 cm ground sample distance, or greater resolution, to effectively capture the information needed for accurate assessments of riparian conditions.