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Promoting Atmospheric-River and Snowmelt-Fueled Biogeomorphic Processes by Restoring River-Floodplain Connectivity in California’s Central Valley

Abstract

Potential biogeomorphic benefits from intentional levee breaks and weir overflow on the managed floodplain-river system of California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin River watershed (Central Valley) are discussed here. Prior to the nineteenth century, the system was characterized by natural levees alongside complex multichanneled rivers and tributaries, and geomorphic processes such as channel migration and avulsion, typical in lowland floodplain-river systems globally, dominated. Today, the floodplain-river system has been heavily modified with infrastructure such as levee embankments that disconnect floodplains from channels and diminish key processes of floodplain-river ecology. Unintentional levee breaks in river systems where floodplains have been developed for agriculture or urban uses still occur regularly (in a quarter of twentieth century years) and are sometimes catastrophic. Floodplain inundation, erosion, and sedimentation, the dominant geomorphic processes that occur during unintentional levee breaks, are flood risks in such embanked river systems. Climate and flood variability still dictate the frequency of unintentional levee breaks despite many decades of engineering. Of particular consequence are the so-called atmospheric-river (AR) storms. Since 1951, 81 % of breaks have occurred as a result of AR storms and flooding, while most of the rest occurred during snowmelt floods. Intentional levee breaks or planned weir overflows that are designed for floodplain restoration can facilitate a return towards more natural and dynamic biogeomorphic processes. In areas where room for flood-driven geomorphic processes is available on floodplains, local sediment scour and deposition near a levee break promote topographic diversity that enhances vegetation establishment and floodplain habitat. This chapter summarizes our current understanding of climate processes and flood variability that govern unintentional levee breaks or weir overflow. We also review examples of alternative flood management approaches in the Central Valley that promote processes necessary to restore or sustain lowland floodplain biogeomorphology. Future climate-driven changes in flood regime, such as enhanced flooding during winter months or more frequent atmospheric rivers, could be accommodated by additional intentional levee breaks or planned weir overflow for restoration. Implementation of these alternatives could be used to improve restoration policy and management of floods in embanked river floodplains.

Keywords

  • Floodplain
  • Sediment
  • Hydrology
  • Atmospheric river
  • Levee break
  • Weir overflow
  • Geomorphology
  • Biogeomorphology

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Acknowledgments

We appreciate suggestions from three reviewers that greatly improved the paper, and thank Noah Knowles for his assistance. Initial work was funded by USGS-UC Davis Cooperative Agreement 03WRAG0005. This is publication 34, Bay-Delta Council-funded Computational Assessments of Scenarios of Change for the Delta Ecosystem (CASCaDE) II Project.

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Correspondence to Joan L. Florsheim .

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Florsheim, J., Dettinger, M. (2015). Promoting Atmospheric-River and Snowmelt-Fueled Biogeomorphic Processes by Restoring River-Floodplain Connectivity in California’s Central Valley. In: Hudson, P., Middelkoop, H. (eds) Geomorphic Approaches to Integrated Floodplain Management of Lowland Fluvial Systems in North America and Europe. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4939-2380-9_6

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