Drainage integration of the Salt and Verde rivers in a Basin and Range extensional landscape, central Arizona, USA

Steve J. Skotnicki, Yeong B. Seong, Ronald I. Dorn, Phillip H. Larson, Jersy DePonty, Ara Jeong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


The Salt River and Verde River watersheds provide downstream metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona, USA with much of its water supply, and this paper explains how these rivers integrated in an extensional tectonic setting. Near the end of the Pliocene, segments of the proto-Salt and proto-Verde watersheds of central Arizona consisted of local drainage networks supplying water and sediment into internally drained basins, including depressions occupied by late Pliocene natural lakes occupying the Verde Valley and Tonto basins. A key location, the lower Verde River valley (LVRV), is where the modern-day drainages of the Salt and Verde now meet downstream of these Pliocene lakes. At the time of the Nomlaki tuff deposition ~3.3 Ma, a condition of sediment overfill existed in the LVRV, although there was no exoreic drainage and a playa was still maintained. A fanglomerate unit, named here the Rolls formation, spilled over a bedrock sill and an alluvial-fan ramp transported sediment into the Higley Basin that underlies the eastern part of metropolitan Phoenix. Lithologies of preserved remnants of this Pliocene alluvial-fan system match well cuttings of buried sediment in the Higley Basin with a cosmogenic burial isochron age of 3.90 ± 0.70 Ma. Based on cosmogenic burial isochron ages, ancestral Salt River gravels started depositing on top of this fan ramp between 2.8 and 2.2 Ma. Deposition of Salt and Verde river gravels in the Higley Basin continued for ~2 million years and eventually led to an aggradational piracy event that overtopped a bedrock ridge immediately east of Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport. A cosmogenic burial age of 460 ± 23 ka is a rough maximum age for this river avulsion that relocated the Salt River into the Luke Basin that underlies western metropolitan Phoenix. Available chronometric data are not precise enough to determine whether the Salt River or Gila River integrated first. All of the exoreic rivers of western North America's Basin and Range Province — the lower Colorado, Gila, Rio Grande, Salt, and Verde rivers — employed lake overflow to integrate across half-graben, graben, rift and supradetachment tectonic settings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107512
StatePublished - Feb 1 2021


  • Aggradation
  • Lake overflow
  • Overfill
  • Piracy
  • Transverse stream

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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