Legacy sediment storage in New England river valleys: Anthropogenic processes in a postglacial landscape

TitleLegacy sediment storage in New England river valleys: Anthropogenic processes in a postglacial landscape
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsJohnson, KM, Snyder, NP, Castle, S, Hopkins, AJ, Waltner, M, Merritts, DJ, Walter, RC
Pagination417 - 437
Date PublishedJan-02-2019
KeywordsAnthropogenic sediment, Legacy sedimen, Milldams

Legacy sediment associated with erosion from land clearing is a common feature in river valleys of the unglaciated Mid-Atlantic Piedmont region. Here, we quantify the volume of legacy sediment storage in three watersheds in New England, a formerly glaciated region with similar history and intensity of forest clearing and milldam construction during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. We combine field observations of bank stratigraphy, radiocarbon dating, and mapping of terraces and floodplains using lidar digital elevation models and other GIS datasets. The 68 km2 South River watershed in western Massachusetts exhibits the most extensive evidence for legacy sediment storage. We visited 18 historic dam sites in the watershed and found field evidence for up to 2.2 m of fine sand and silt legacy sediment storage at 14 of the sites. In the 555 km2 Sheepscot River watershed in coastal Maine, we visited 13 historic dam sites and found likely legacy sediment up to 2.3 m thick at six of the dams. In the 171 km2 upper Charles River watershed in eastern Massachusetts, we investigated 14 dam sites, and found legacy sediment up to 1.8 m thick at two of them. Stratigraphically, we identified the base of fine-grained legacy sediment from a change to much coarser grain size (gravel at most sites) or to glacial lacustrine or marine deposits. Along the Sheepscot River, we observed cut timbers underlying historic sediment at several locations, likely associated with sawmill activities. Only at the Charles River were we able to radiocarbon date the underlying gravel layer (1281–1391 calibrated CE). At no site did we find a buried organic-rich Holocene soil, in contrast to the field relations commonly observed in the Mid-Atlantic region. We use lidar elevation data to map planar terrace extents in each watershed, estimate thickness of remaining legacy sediment found stored behind breached or removed milldams, and estimate volumes of remaining legacy sediment storage in valley bottoms for entire watersheds. The maximum volume of stored legacy sediment estimated for the South, Sheepscot, and upper Charles watersheds is 2.5 × 106 m3, 3.7 × 106 m3, and 2.6 × 104 m3, respectively. These volumes of legacy sediment can be translated to an equivalent thickness of soil eroded from each watershed: 37 mm, 7 mm, and 0.2 mm, respectively. We attribute the variation in presence and thickness of legacy sediment at the New England sites to the existence or absence of upstream sediment supply in the form of thick glacial deposits and to sinks such as lakes and wetlands along valley bottoms. Of the three study watersheds, the South River has the most extensive glacial sediments, fewest sinks, and the most legacy sediment in storage along the river corridor.