Measuring 20th century fluvial response to 18-19th century anthropogenic activity using two generations of damming in the South River, western Massachusetts
Centuries-long intensive land use change in the northeastern U.S. provides the opportunity to study the response timescale of geomorphic processes to anthropogenic perturbations. In this region, deforestation and the construction of dams following European settlement drastically altered the landscape, leading to the impoundment of sediment in mill ponds. This legacy sediment continues to be released into transport decades after a dam has been removed or breached. Geochemical tracers can help distinguish sediment sources and understand how sediment moves through a watershed. The South River in western MA is located in a formerly glaciated watershed, and these surficial deposits compose 98% of the area. It experienced two generations of damming, beginning with smaller mill dams in the 18th-19th centuries, followed by the construction of the Conway Electric Dam (CED), a 17 m tall hydroelectric dam in the early 20th century. Legacy sediment deposits from sediment stored behind mill dams cover 1.5% of the watershed area. The CED is located near the outlet of the river, providing a century-long depositional record for the watershed, during reforestation. I hypothesize that sediment mobilized from human activity will contain a different geochemical signature than glacial material, that recent erosion in the watershed is primarily from anthropogenic legacy deposits rather than from glacial age landforms, and channel widening is occurring in reaches of the channel composed of legacy sediment, rather than in glacially confined reaches. These hypotheses were tested through a two part investigation, consisting of a sediment tracing study using Hg, and a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis of channel changes using aerial photographs from 1940 and 2014. Samples were collected from river bank exposures of 11 glacial deposits and four mill pond legacy sites. Two vibracores measuring 476 and 500 cm were collected in reservoir sediment stored behind the CED in 2013 and 2017, respectively. Hg concentrations range from 1-4 ppb in glacial sediment, 3-380 ppb in legacy sediment, and 2-18 ppb and 7-50 ppb in the two CED cores. I used Hg as a tracer to estimate percent contributions to the CED reservoir from each watershed source during the 20th century. Results from a sediment mixing model suggest glacial sources contributed 32 ± 15%, and legacy sediment deposits contributed 68 ± 15% during the 20th century. Based on 137Cs dates on the cores, high amounts of legacy sediment filled in behind the CED prior to 1953 (74 ± 35 %), and background erosion from glacial deposits dominated from 1953 until the reservoir was filled in the 1980s (63 ± 14%). GIS analyses using aerial photographs from 1940 and 2014 indicate that the channel did not significantly widen along any section of the river, however, increases in sinuosity (up to 12%) occurred in the legacy sediment dominated reaches of the channel, and minor increases (1-2%) occurred in the glacial reaches. Overall, these analyses show an increase in the amount of sediment released in the channel as a result of mill dams breaching through the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, and suggest a short recovery timescale response from this land-use change.