Delta dynamics: Effects of a major earthquake, tides, and river flows on Ciénega de Santa Clara and the Colorado River Delta, Mexico

Steven M. Nelson, Eric J. Fielding, Francisco Zamora-Arroyo, Karl Flessa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


The intertidal portion of Mexico's Colorado River Delta is a dynamic environment subject to complex interactions of tectonic, fluvial, and tidal forces at the head of the Gulf of California. We review the historical interactions of these forces, use sequential satellite images, overflights, ground observations, and interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) data to study the effects of the 2010 Mw 7.2 El Mayor-Cucapah Earthquake on changing patterns of tidal inundation within the Delta, and assess effects of these changes to the fluvial/hydrological regime of the Colorado River estuary and nearby Ciénega de Santa Clara wetland. The objectives of this study are to highlight for environmental scientists, land managers, and ecological engineers the contribution of tectonic forces in shaping the intertidal Delta environment and to provide information on the effects of the 2010 earthquake which will be of practical value in planning and designing management measures and restoration projects for the estuary and Ciénega.The Colorado River estuary is at present blocked by a tidal sand bar which restricts access by marine species to the upper estuary and obstructs the flow of fresh water into the lower estuary. Located 13. km east of the estuary, the Ciénega is a 6000. ha wetland supported by agricultural drain water from Arizona and Mexico. South of the Ciénega is the Santa Clara Slough, an unvegetated 26,000. ha basin subject to periodic inundation from the northern Gulf's high amplitude tides, which have historically reached the margins of the Ciénega several times each year.The El Mayor-Cucapah earthquake ruptured the previously unknown Indiviso Fault which extends into the intertidal zone just west of the Ciénega. The Ciénega experienced only minor surface deformation having no direct effects to the wetland. Most of the significant ground movement and surface deformation occurred west of the Indiviso Fault adjacent to the estuary, where portions of the intertidal flats underwent extensive liquefaction, northward coseismic displacement and post-seismic subsidence. These surface deformations changed the pattern of tidal inundation, triggering development of a new system of natural tidal channels and creating conditions favorable for installation of projects to restore connectivity between the upper and lower estuary. The changed pattern of tidal inundation may also have contributed to an observed reduction in the occurrence of tidal flooding along the southwestern margin of the Ciénega following the earthquake.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)144-156
Number of pages13
JournalEcological Engineering
StatePublished - Nov 2012


  • Channel change
  • Colorado River Delta
  • Earthquake surface deformation
  • Tidal inundation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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