Influence of riparian vegetation on channel widening and subsequent contraction on a sand-bed stream since European settlement: Widden Brook, Australia

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Erskine, WD, Keene, A, Bush, RT, Cheetham, MD & Chalmers, A 2012, 'Influence of riparian vegetation on channel widening and subsequent contraction on a sand-bed stream since European settlement: Widden Brook, Australia', Geomorphology, vol. 147-148, pp. 102-114.

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Widden Brook in the Hunter Valley, Australia, was first settled by Europeans in 1831 and had widened substantially by the 1870s due to frequent floods during a flood-dominated regime impacting on highly disturbed banks whose riparian trees had been either ringbarked or cleared, and whose understorey had been grazed. Catastrophic floods in 1950 (many), two in August 1952 and one in February 1955 effected the final phase of channel widening at the onset of a second flood-dominated regime more than half a century after the initial widening. Contraction has been active since 1963 by a combination of five biogeomorphic processes. Firstly, rapid channel widening, migration and cutoffs totally reworked the pre-European floodplain and were followed by active floodplain formation. Initial bar formation was replaced by sand splay and overbank deposition which constructed a new floodplain and narrower channel. Secondly, overwidened channel segments that were produced by the catastrophic 1955 flood have contracted since 1963 by the formation of up to four bank-attached, discontinuous benches below the floodplain. Each bench has a bar nucleus of pebbly coarse sand overlain by stratified fine-medium sand and mud. Colonisation by River Sheoaks (Casuarina cunninghamiana subsp. cunninghamiana) or grasses (Cynodon dactylon, Paspalum distichum, Pennisetum clandestinum) is important in converting bars to benches. Thirdly, narrower segments which developed since 1963 have contracted by small-scale accretion on both banks. These deposits are steeply dipping, interbedded sand and mud trapped by stoloniferous and rhizomatous grasses (C. dactylon, P. distichum, P. clandestinum) which also rapidly stabilise the deposits. Fourthly, rare laterally migrating, small radius bends have contracted by recent point bar formation greatly exceeding cutbank recession rates. Point bar formation is controlled by secondary currents producing inclined stratified coarse sands without the influence of vegetation. Lastly, rare, overwidened, non-migrating, large radius bends have greatly contracted by the infilling of dissecting chutes across the convex bank. Establishment of stoloniferous and rhizomatous clonal grasses (Phragmites australis, C. dactylon, P. distichum, P. clandestinum) is important in inducing sedimentation of the chutes. Contraction has produced a much narrower channel than the design width between river training fences which were installed progressively between the 1960s and 1990s. The recent flood history of Widden Brook has not included any catastrophic floods of a size similar to February 1955. Our work demonstrates that both trees and grasses can be associated with narrower channel widths and that the causal link between width and vegetation type is more complex than usually acknowledged.

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