Thursday, July 26, 2018

That's a Huge River! Well, Not Exactly...Sediments in the Siuslaw River Estuary

In the photo above we're on a hill overlooking the Siuslaw River near Florence, Oregon. From this point of view the river looks huge and indeed the channel is navigable and leads to a working marina a mile or two upstream. But looks can be deceiving, and a careful observer will note that the "river" spends half of the time flowing the wrong direction. Like two of the last posts here on Geotripper, the Moon is part of the story...this is a tidal estuary. The Moon has the greatest influence on the intensity of the tides.

There is a Siuslaw River, of course, but it is just not quite this big. It is 120 miles long, starting at an elevation of 636 feet in the Oregon Coast Ranges, draining an area of about 773 square miles. The discharge of the river varies greatly depending on the season. The long-term average is around 3,000 cubic feet per second, but last week when I was there it was a mere 145 cubic feet per second. During the worst of flooding the river can exceed 50,000 cfs. But it is the lower part of the river that is affected most by the tides. During extreme high tides, changes in river level can be noted 26 miles upstream.
An estuary is the portion of a river influenced by tides where there is a constant mixing of salt and fresh water. Estuaries are rich in nutrients and one of the richest biomass producers on the planet. The estuary of the Siuslaw River developed at the end of the last Ice Age. With so much water locked up in glacial ice, sea level was hundreds of feet lower than it is today, and the Siuslaw River occupied a deep channel that continued for miles west of the current coastline. As the ice melted, sea level rose and flooded the river valley, but the Siuslaw River carried vast amounts of sediment to fill the flooded channel, forming the flat level valley we can see today. Additional sediment is added by wind blowing sand from the coastal dunes that line the lower channel (the Siuslaw is at the northern end of Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area).
When I was there a week or two ago, we experienced an intense low tide that exposed some rarely seen sedimentary structures in the channel. When the tides rise, water rushes upstream, and when the tides fall, the water goes out to sea. Flowing over the loose silt and sand, the flow causes the development of gigantic ripples like those in the pictures above and below.

It didn't occur to me at the time, but this is not a natural channel. Because of the ship traffic, the channel is dredged to maintain sufficient depth for the boats to pass through. There are other changes in the last century. The drainage of the Siuslaw is one of the most heavily logged regions in Oregon, and the clearcutting of timber has changed the nature of slope failure and flooding on the river. Trees and logjams used to trap sediment upstream, providing a rich breeding ground for salmon. The logjams were removed and the river scoured the channel to bedrock in many places. One of the most destructive activities was the process of "splash-dam" logging. Temporary dams were built across the river and trees were cut and floated in the reservoir. The reservoir was then dynamited and the resulting flood carried the logs downstream to the mills. The practice, needless to say, was hugely destructive of the salmon fisheries. Over the years the salmon runs declined from hundreds of thousands of fish each year to mere thousands.
Some of the sources I checked pointed out that the Siuslaw once was the second richest salmon fishery in Oregon after the Columbia River. Efforts are being made to improve the environment to build the salmon runs. They'll never be what they were a century ago given the vast changes upstream, but there is a lot of potential for growth of fish populations. In the meantime, it is an interesting place to visit if you are ever lucky enough to find yourself on the central Oregon coast (especially during the present heat wave!).