Fundamentals of Rosgen stream classification system - Geography for You

Fundamentals of Rosgen stream classification system

The Rosgen method is a more detailed way to classify streams than the Strahler method. It is often used by state and federal agencies. It is also known as the channel shape method. This approach categorizes streams into types A-G on the basis of
  • Slope
  • Sinuosity
  • Ratio of the stream’s width to depth
  • Degree of entrenchment
  • Soil particle size (texture) of the streambanks and channel bottom.

In addition to the letter (A-G) it is given for classification, the stream/river can also be followed by numbers 1-6 which relates to the stream bed material type. They are classified as follow:
1 – Bedrock
2 – Boulders
3 – Cobble
4 – Gravel
5 – Sand
6 - Silt-Clay
Fundamentals of Rosgen stream classification system

  1. provide for the initial integration of basin characteristics, valley types, and landforms with stream system morphology.
  2. provide a consistent initial framework for organizing river information and communicating the aspects of river morphology. Mapping of physiographic attributes at Level I can quickly determine location and approximate percentage of river types within a watershed and/or valley type.
  3. assist in the setting of priorities for conducting more detailed assessments and/or companion inventories.
  4. correlate similar general level inventories such as fisheries habitat, river boating categories, and riparian habitat with companion river inventories.
The advantage of a broad, general classification is that it allows for a rapid initial delineation of stream types and illustrates the distribution of these types that would be encountered within a given study area. The Level I classification and delineation process provides a general characterization of valley types (addressed in the second part of this module), and identifies the corresponding major stream types, A through G, discussed here. Illustrations of the Level I stream types are shown in the accompanying figure; clicking on each stream type will also bring up a brief text description of that type in this text window.

The “Aa+” Stream Type

Stream type “Aa+” is very steep (>10%), well entrenched, has a low width/depth ratio, and is totally confined (laterally contained). The bedforms are typically a step/pool morphology with chutes, debris flows, and waterfalls. The “Aa+” stream types often occur in debris avalanche terrain, zones of deep deposition such as glacial tills and outwash terraces, or landforms that are structurally controlled or influenced by faults, joints, or other structural contact zones. Streamflow at the bankfull stage in the "Aa+" stream type is generally observed as a torrent or waterfall. The "Aa+" stream types can be associated with bedrock, and zones of deep deposition and/or be deeply incised in residual soils. The "Aa+" can often be described as high energy/high sediment supply systems due to their inherently steep channel slopes and narrow/deep channel cross-sections. “Aa+” stream types may also be found in alluvial landforms, where a change in the base level of the mainstem channel initiates a headward expansion of the tributary network through a channel rejuvenation process. Examples of rejuvenation may be observed where lower-slope position streams are deeply incised in over-steepened adjacent side-wall slopes, or older holocene terrace features that have cut their way through to the elevation of the existing mainstem river. The “Aa+” stream types are often found in valley types I, III, and VII, discussed in the next part of this module.

The "A" Stream Type

Stream type "A" is similar to the described “Aa+”, in terms of associated landforms and channel characteristics. The exception being that channel slopes range from 4 to 10 percent, and streamflows at the bankfull stage are typically described as step/pools, with attendant plunge or scour pools. Normally, "A" stream types are found within valley types that due to their inherent channel steepness, exhibit a high sediment transport potential and a relatively low in-channel sediment storage capacity. Although a large number of "A" stream types occur as low-order streams, located at upper-slope positions, stream order for these stream types can range from 1st order up to 5th order or larger. Stream order referred to is that of Strahler, where the incipient crenulation of a drainage way on the landscape is order 1 and the confluence of the first two drainage ways become order 2 and so on. The influx of large organic debris can play a major role in determining the bedform and overall channel stability of "A" stream types. Landforms associated with deeply incised fanhead troughs are associated with both “Aa+” and "A" stream types. Valley types associated with the "A" stream types are I, III, and VII.

The "B" Stream Type

The "B" stream types exist primarily on moderately steep to gently sloped terrain, with the predominant landform seen as a narrow and moderately sloping basin. Many of the "B" stream types are the result of the integrated influence of structural contact zones, faults, joints, colluvial-alluvial deposits, and structurally controlled valley side-slopes which tend to result in narrow valleys that limit the development of a wide floodplain. "B" stream types are moderately entrenched, have a cross-section width/depth ratio (greater than 12), display a low channel sinuosity, and exhibit a "rapids" dominated bed morphology. Bedform morphology, which may be influenced by debris constrictions and local confinement, typically produces scour pools (pocket water) and characteristic "rapids." Streambank erosion rates are normally low as are the channel aggradation/degradation process rates. Pool-to-pool spacing is generally four to five bankfull widths, decreasing with an increase in slope gradient. Meander width ratios (belt width/bankfull width) are generally low which reflect the low rates of lateral extension. "B" stream types are usually found within valley types II, III, and VI.

The "C" Stream Type

The "C" stream types are located in narrow to wide valleys, constructed from alluvial deposition. The "C" type channels have a well developed floodplain (slightly entrenched), are relatively sinuous with a channel slope of 2% or less and a bedform morphology indicative of a riffle/pool configuration. The shape and form of the "C" stream types are indicated by cross-sectional width/depth ratios generally greater than 12, and sinuosities exceeding 1.2. The "C" stream type exhibits a sequencing of steeps (riffles) and flats (pools), that are linked to the meander geometry of the river where the riffle/pool sequence or spacing is on the average one-half a meander wavelength or approximately 5-7 bankfull channel widths. The primary morphological features of the "C" stream type are the sinuous, low relief channel, the well developed floodplains built by the river, and characteristic "point bars" within the active channel. The channel aggradation/degradation and lateral extension processes, notably active in "C" stream types, are inherently dependent on the natural stability of streambanks, the existing upstream watershed conditions and flow and sediment regime. Channels of the "C" stream type can be significantly altered and rapidly de-stabilized when the effects of imposed changes in bank stability, watershed condition, or flow regime are combined to cause an exceedance of a channel stability threshold. "C" stream types may be observed in valley types IV, V, VI, VIII, IX and X. They can also be found on the lower slope positions of the very low gradient valley type III.

The "D" Stream Type

The "D" stream type is uniquely configured as a multiple channel system exhibiting a braided, or bar-braided pattern with a very high channel width/depth ratio, and a channel slope generally the same as the attendant valley slope. "D" type stream channels are found in landforms and related valley types consisting of steep depositional fans, steep glacial trough valleys, glacial outwash valleys, broad alluvial mountain valleys, and deltas. While the very wide and shallow "D" stream types are not deeply incised, they can be laterally contained in narrower or confined valleys. Bank erosion rates are characteristically high and meander width ratios are very low. Sediment supply is generally unlimited and bed features are the result of a convergence/divergence process of local bed scour and sediment deposition. The multiple channel features are displayed as a series of various bar types and unvegetated islands that shift position frequently during runoff events. Adjustments in channel patterns can be initiated with either natural or imposed changes in the conditions of the encompassing landform, contributing watershed area, or the existing channel system. Aggradation and lateral extension are dominant channel adjustment processes occurring within a range of landscapes from desert to glacial outwash plains. Typically, the runoff regime is "flashy," especially in arid landscapes with highly variable extremes of stage occurring on an annual basis which generates a very high sediment supply. Braided channel patterns can be found developing in very coarse materials located in valleys with moderately steep slopes, to very wide, flat, low gradient valleys containing finer materials. The "D" stream type may develop within valley types III, V, VIII, IX, X, and XI.

The "DA" (Anastomosed) Stream Type

The "DA" or anastomosed stream type is a multiple-thread channel system with a very low stream gradient and the bankfull width of each individual channel noted as highly variable. Stream banks are often constructed with fine grained cohesive bank materials, supporting dense-rooted vegetation species, and are extremely stable. Channel slopes are very gentle, commonly found to be at or less than .0001. Lateral migration rates of the individual channels are very low except for infrequent avulsion. Relative to the "D" stream type, the "DA" stream type is considered as a stable system composed of multiple channels. Channel width/depth ratios and sinuosities may vary from very low to very high. The related valley morphology is seen as a series of broad, gently sloping wetland features developed on or within lacustrine deposits, river deltas or splays, and fine-grained alluvial deposits. The "DA" stream types make up a very small number of observed stream types, but are unique both in the process of their creation and maintenance. In certain locations operating at a "control" point within a valley, maintains the valley base level where a vertical balance exists between the rate of deposition and the rate of uplift. The geologic processes responsible for development of the anastomosed river include subsidence of sedimentary basins in tectonically active forelands, valley base level rise at the basin outlet, regional basin tilting derived from glacial-induced differential isostatic rebound, and the uplifting of sea or lake bed levels. The bedform features of the "DA" stream types are riffle/pool, similar to stream types "C" and "E." The streambanks and island surfaces between channels are well vegetated and constructed with either fine grained alluvium, or fine, cohesive depositional materials. The ratio of bedload to total sediment load is very low for these very stable stream types. The "DA" stream type normally occurs in valley types X and XI.

The "E" Stream Type

The "E" type stream channels are conceptually designated as evolutionary in terms of fluvial process and morphology. The "E" stream type represents the developmental "end-point" of channel stability and fluvial process efficiency for certain alluvial streams undergoing a natural dynamic sequence of system evolution. The "E" type system often develops inside of the wide, entrenched and meandering channels of the "F" stream types, following floodplain development on and vegetation recovery of the former "F" channel beds. The "E" stream types are slightly entrenched, exhibit very low channel width/depth ratios, and display very high channel sinuosities which result in the highest meander width ratio values of all the other stream types. The bedform features of the "E" stream type are predominantly a consistent series of riffle/pool reaches, generating the highest number of pools per unit distance of channel, when compared to other riffle/pool stream types (C, DA, and F). "E" type stream systems generally occur in alluvial valleys that exhibit low elevational relief characteristics and physiographically range from the high elevations of alpine meadows to the low elevations of coastal plains. While the "E" stream types are considered as highly stable systems, provided the floodplain and the low channel width/depth characteristics are maintained, they are very sensitive to disturbance and can be rapidly adjusted and converted to other stream types in relatively short time periods. The "E" stream type typically develops within valley types VIII, X, and XI.

The "F" Stream Type

The "F" stream types are the classic "entrenched, meandering" channels described by early day geomorphologists, and are often observed to be working towards re-establishment of a functional floodplain inside the confines of a channel that is consistently increasing its width within the valley. "F" stream types are deeply incised in valleys of relatively low elevational relief, containing highly weathered rock and/or erodible materials. The "F" stream systems are characterized by very high channel width/depth ratios at the bankfull stage, and bedform features occurring as a moderated riffle/pool sequence. "F" stream channels can develop very high bank erosion rates, lateral extension rates, significant bar deposition and accelerated channel aggradation and/or degradation while providing for very high sediment supply and storage capacities. The "F" stream types occur in low relief valley type III, and in valley types IV, V, VI, VIII, IX, and X

The "G" Stream Type

The "G" or "gully" stream type is an entrenched, narrow, and deep, step/pool channel with a low to moderate sinuosity. Channel slopes are generally steeper than .02, although "G" channels may be associated with gentler slopes where they occur as "down-cut" gullies in meadows. The "G" stream type channels are found in a variety of landtypes to include alluvial fans, debris cones, meadows, or channels within older relic channels. The "fanhead trench" which is a channel feature deeply incised in alluvial fans is typical of "G" type stream channels. With the exception of those channels containing bedrock and boulder materials, the "G" stream types have very high bank erosion rates and a high sediment supply. Exhibiting moderate to steep channel slopes, low channel width/depth ratios and high sediment supply, the "G" stream type generates high bedload and suspended sediment transport rates. Channel degradation and sideslope rejuvenation processes are typical. The valley types supporting the "G" stream types are I, III, V, VI, VII, VIII, and X. The "G" stream type can also be observed in valley types II, VI, VIII and X, under conditions of instability or disequilibrium that are often imposed by watershed changes and/or direct channel impacts.
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