Skip to main content

Recently Published Research

In EOS: Earth & Space Science News
Green and Grand: John Wesley Powell and the West That Wasn’t


Read the article


The American West, while steeped in mythology, is also a region that depends heavily on science for its long-term livability—and perhaps no one was quicker to realize that than John Wesley Powell. A Civil War veteran and an indefatigable explorer, Powell landed on the national stage in 1869, after an expedition he led became the first to navigate the Colorado River’s path through the Grand Canyon. In the decades that followed, Powell would argue that careful, democratic management of water resources in the West must be a crucial component of its development and that a pattern of settlement and land cultivation based on the 19th century status quo would prove unsustainable.

“One thing that he didn’t anticipate [was] the degree to which we would accumulate western society in big, urban complexes,” says Jack Schmidt, the Janet Quinney Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University and former chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. Powell, Schmidt says, might not have imagined that these urban complexes “would have these tentacles that extended way out into the distant landscape [or] the degree to which these big urban centers would be maintained by these really long canals…these really complicated electricity transmission systems that bring in power from distant coal-fired and nuclear and hydroelectric dam facilities.”

In Environmental Sustainability
Incorporating social-ecological considerations into basin-wide responses to climate change in the Colorado River Basin

by Lucas Bair, Charles Yackulic, John C Schmidt and others

Read the article

AbstractDuring the last 50 years, construction of dams in the western United States declined. This is partly because of increasing recognition of diverse and unintended social-ecological consequences of dams. Today, resource managers are recognizing the wide array of tradeoffs and are including a more diverse group of stakeholders in decision making for individual dams. Yet decisions at the regional scale maintain a focus on a limited number of resources and objectives, leading to inefficient and inequitable outcomes. Social- ecological changes compounded by climate change challenge this management paradigm. Increasing water demands for humans and the environment and renewed interest in hydropower present opportunities for operations that include climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies while considering tradeoffs and equitable responses at the regional scale.

In AGU Publications
Estimating the Natural Flow Regime of Rivers with Long-Standing Development: The Northern Branch of the Rio Grande

by Todd L. Blythe and John C. Schmidt

Download data from this research
Read the article

AbstractAn estimate of a river’s natural flow regime is useful for water resource planning and ecosystem rehabilitation by providing insight into the predisturbance form and function of a river. The natural flow regime of most rivers has been perturbed by development during the 20th century and in some cases, before stream gaging began. The temporal resolution of natural flows estimated using traditional methods is typically not sufficient to evaluate cues that drive native ecosystem function. Additionally, these traditional methods are watershed specific and require large amounts of data to produce accurate results. We present a mass balance method that estimates natural flows at daily time step resolution for the northern branch of the Rio Grande, upstream from the Rio Conchos, that relies only on easily obtained streamflow data. Using an analytical change point method, we identified periods of the measured flow regime during the 20th century for comparison with the estimated natural flows. Our results highlight the significant deviation from natural conditions that occurred during the 20th century. The total annual flow of the northern branch is 95% lower than it would be in the absence of human use. The current 2 year flood has decreased by more than 60%, is shorter in duration, and peaks later in the year. When compared to unregulated flows estimated using traditional mass balance accounting methods, our approach provides similar results. 

CCRS White Paper
Fill Mead First: a technical assessement

by John C. Schmidt

Read the executive summary
Read the complete white paper

AbstractThe Fill Mead First (FMF) plan would establish Lake Mead reservoir as the primary water storage facility of the main-stem Colorado River and would relegate Lake Powell reservoir to a secondary water storage facility to be used only when Lake Mead is full. The objectives of the FMF plan are to re-expose some of Glen Canyon’s sandstone walls that are now inundated, begin the process of re-creating a riverine ecosystem in Glen Canyon, restore a more natural stream-flow, temperature, and sediment-supply regime of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon ecosystem, and reduce system-wide water losses caused by evaporation and movement of reservoir water into ground-water storage. The FMF plan would be implemented in three phases. Phase I would involve lowering Lake Powell to the minimum elevation at which hydroelectricity can still be produced (called minimum power pool elevation): 3490 ft asl (feet above sea level). At this elevation, the water surface area of Lake Powell is approximately 77 mi2, which is 31% of the surface area when the reservoir is full. Phase II of the FMF plan would involve lowering Lake Powell to dead pool elevation (3370 ft asl), abandoning hydroelectricity generation, and releasing water only through the river outlets. The water surface area of Lake Powell at dead pool is approximately 32 mi2 and is 13% of the reservoir surface area when it is full. Implementation of Phase III would necessitate drilling new diversion tunnels around Glen Canyon Dam in order to eliminate all water storage at Lake Powell. In this paper, we summarize the FMF plan and identify critical details about the plan’s implementation that are presently unknown. We estimate changes in evaporation losses and ground-water storage that would occur if the FMF plan was implemented, based on review of existing data and published reports. We also discuss significant river-ecosystem issues that would arise if the plan was implemented.

In Geomorphology
The role of feedback mechanisms in historic channel changes of the lower Rio Grande in the Big Bend region

by David J. Dean and John C. Schmidt 

AbstractOver the last century, large-scale water development of the upper Rio Grande in the US and Mexico, and of the Rio Conchos in Mexico, has resulted in progressive channel narrowing of the lower Rio Grande in the Big Bend region. We used methods operating at multiple spatial and temporal scales to analyze the rate, magnitude, and processes responsible for channel narrowing. These methods included: hydrologic analysis of historic stream gage data, analysis of notes of measured discharges, historic oblique and aerial photograph analysis, and stratigraphic and dendrogeomorphic analysis of inset floodplain deposits. Our analyses indicate that frequent large floods between 1900 and the mid-1940s acted as a negative feedback mechanism and maintained a wide, sandy, multi-threaded river. Declines in mean and peak flow in the mid-1940s resulted in progressive channel …

In Geomorphology
The geomorphic effectiveness of a large flood on the Rio Grande in the Big Bend region: Insights on geomorphic controls and post-flood geomorphic response

by David J. Dean and John C. Schmidt 

AbstractAbstract Since the 1940s, the Rio Grande in the Big Bend region has undergone long periods of channel narrowing, which have been occasionally interrupted by rare, large floods that widen the channel (termed a channel reset). The most recent channel reset occurred in 2008 following a 17-year period of extremely low stream flow and rapid channel narrowing. Flooding was caused by precipitation associated with the remnants of tropical depression Lowell in the Rio Conchos watershed, the largest tributary to the Rio Grande. Floodwaters approached 1500 m 3/s (between a 13 and 15 year recurrence interval) and breached levees, inundated communities, and flooded the alluvial valley of the Rio Grande; the wetted width exceeding 2.5 km in some locations. The 2008 flood had the 7th largest magnitude of record, however, conveyed the largest volume of water than any other flood …

In GSA Bulletin
Stratigraphic, sedimentologic, and dendrogeomorphic analyses of rapid floodplain formation along the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, Texas

by David J. Dean, M. Scott, Patrick Shaffroth and John C. Schmidt 

AbstractThe channel of the lower Rio Grande in the Big Bend region rapidly narrows during years of low mean and peak flow. We conducted stratigraphic, sedimentologic, and dendrogeomorphic analyses within two long floodplain trenches to precisely reconstruct the timing and processes of recent floodplain formation. We show that the channel of the Rio Grande narrowed through the oblique and vertical accretion of inset floodplains following channel-widening floods in 1978 and 1990–1991. Vertical accretion occurred at high rates, ranging from 16 to 35 cm/yr.

In Journal of Geophysical Research
Sediment supply versus local hydraulic controls on sediment transport and storage in a river with large sediment loads

by David J. Dean, John J. Topping, John C. Schmidt, Ronald E. Griffiths and Thomas A. Sabol

AbstractThe Rio Grande in the Big Bend region of Texas, USA, and Chihuahua and Coahuila, Mexico, undergoes rapid geomorphic changes as a result of its large sediment supply and variable hydrology; thus, it is a useful natural laboratory to investigate the relative importance of flow strength and sediment supply in controlling alluvial channel change. We analyzed a suite of sediment transport and geomorphic data to determine the cumulative influence of different flood types on changing channel form. In this study, physically based analyses suggest that channel change in the Rio Grande is controlled by both changes in flow strength and sediment supply over different spatial and temporal scales. Channel narrowing is primarily caused by substantial deposition of sediment supplied to the Rio Grande during tributary-sourced flash floods.