Sedimentation and sustainability of western American reservoirs

William L. Graf, Ellen Wohl, Tushar Sinha, John Sabo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


Reservoirs are sustainable only as long as they offer sufficient water storage space to achieve their design objectives. Life expectancy related to sedimentation is a measure of reservoir sustainability. We used data from the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Geological Survey (Reservoir Sedimentation Survey Information System II (RESIS II)) to explore the sustainability of American reservoirs. Sustainability varied by region, with the longest life expectancies in New England and the Tennessee Valley and the shortest in the interior west. In the Missouri and Colorado River basins, sedimentation and rates of loss of reservoir storage capacity were highly variable in time and space. In the Missouri River Basin, the larger reservoirs had the longest life expectancies, with some exceeding 1000 years, while smaller reservoirs in the basin had the shortest life expectancies. In the Colorado River Basin at the site of Glen Canyon Dam, sediment inflow varied with time, declining by half beginning in 1942 because of hydroclimate and upstream geomorphic changes. Because of these changes, the estimated life expectancy of Lake Powell increased from 300 to 700 years. Future surprise changes in sedimentation delivery and reservoir filling area are expected. Even though large western reservoirs were built within a limited period, their demise will not be synchronous because of varying sedimentation rates. Popular literature has incorrectly emphasized the possibility of rapid, synchronous loss of reservoir storage capacity and underestimated the sustainability of the water control infrastructure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberW12535
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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