Articles | Volume 14, issue 3
Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 14, 713–730, 2014
Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 14, 713–730, 2014

Research article 31 Mar 2014

Research article | 31 Mar 2014

Recent human impacts and change in dynamics and morphology of ephemeral rivers

J. A. Ortega1, L. Razola2, and G. Garzón3 J. A. Ortega et al.
  • 1Dpto. de Geología y Geoquímica. Facultad Ciencias, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Madrid, Spain
  • 2School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
  • 3Dpto. Geodinamica, Facultad de Geología, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Madrid, Spain

Abstract. Ephemeral streams induce flash-flood events, which cause dramatic morphological changes and impacts on population, mainly because they are intermittent and less predictable. Human pressures on the basin modify load and discharge relationships, inducing dormant instability on the fluvial system that will manifest abruptly during flood events. The flash-flood response of two ephemeral streams affected by load supply modification due to land use changes is discussed in a combination of geomorphic and hydraulic approaches. During the Rivillas flash flood, intensive clearing on the basin led to high rates of sediment flowing into an artificially straightened and inefficient channel. The stream evolved from a sinuous single channel into a shallow braiding occupying the entire width of the valley floor. Misfits and unsteady channel conditions increased velocity, stream power and sediment entrainment capacity and considerably magnified flood damage. Resulting morphosedimentary features revealed a close relationship with the valley floor post-flood hydraulic model, and pre-event awareness would have made it possible to predict risk-sensitive areas. In the second case, the Azohía stream, modelling of current pre-flood channel conditions make it possible to determine channel narrowing and entrenchment in the lower alluvial fan stretch. Abandonment of intensive agriculture, basin reforestation and urbanization diminish load contribution and trigger channel incision. This induces an increase in slope and velocity in the bankfull channel, producing renewed erosive energy and thus activating upstream propagation of incision and bank undermining. The absence of water-spreading dynamics on the alluvial fan in favour of confinement in a single channel produces an unstable dynamic in the system, also offering a false sense of stability, as long as no large magnitude floods occur. When modelling flood-prone areas and analysing hydraulic variables, it is important to detect possible anthropic disturbances that may affect basin load budgets in order to anticipate catastrophic consequences resulting from inappropriate fluvial management before the occurrence of an extraordinary event.

Final-revised paper