Influence of bank stabilization on floodplain sediment and phosphorus storage

Aug 2021


Eroding river banks are frequently stabilized with rock, concrete or wood when infrastructure or property is threatened. There is also growing interest in using bank stabilization as a way to reduce nutrient loading from bank erosion. However, little is known about the impacts of bank stabilization on the sediment deposition process on opposing point bars and the adjacent floodplain, whose dynamics are closely coupled with bank erosion. If arresting bank erosion also reduces sediment and phosphorus deposition and storage elsewhere, the nutrient reduction benefits of streambank stabilization may be less than expected.


Researchers plan to compare the sediment and P concentrations of eroded and deposited sediment in five stabilized and five unstabilized river bends in the Nishnabotna River watershed to determine whether bank stabilization has any systematic impact on reach-scale sediment and P storage.


Aerial imagery and LiDAR elevation data will be used to estimate the total volumes of sediment eroded and deposited from each stabilized and unstabilized bend. Researchers will then map and sample different sediment types on each point bar and adjacent floodplain to characterize both the sediment eroded and deposited and its P concentration. The results will be compared to determine whether sediment and P storage on point bars and adjacent floodplains is reduced in bends with bank stabilization structures.

Project Updates

Note: Project reports published on the INRC website are often revised from researchers' original reports to increase consistency.

December 2023


Key Research Questions:

We sought to identify whether bank stabilization effectively reduced net inputs of sediment and phosphorus from laterally-migrating river bends.

Research Findings:

Extensive field surveying and sediment sampling took place in summer 2022 on six bends in the West Nishnabotna River between Hancock and Henderson, in southwest Iowa. Three of the selected river bends had bank stabilization structures limiting their migration, while the other three had no structures. The software CloudCompare was used to estimate sediment erosion and deposition by comparing 2009 and 2020 LiDAR point clouds in the same river bends.

We found that, on average, stabilization structures reduced net inputs of sediment and P from migrating bends, when compared with the bends lacking stabilization structures. However, the magnitude of net sediment and P reduction is not equal to the magnitude of erosion prevented, as deposition on the inside bank offsets some of the inputs from bank erosion. Not only does bank stabilization reduce bank inputs of sediment and P, it reduces the offsetting deposition. Any attempt to account for nutrient reduction achieved by stabilizing eroding banks must also assess the effects of stabilization on local and downstream deposition.

Related activities and accomplishments

- 1 field day

- 2 presentations

Lambert, T.L., 2023, Streambank Stabilization Effects on Point Bar Accretion and Phosphorous Storage, M.S. thesis, Iowa State University. Lambert, T., and P.L. Moore, 2023. Reach-scale effects of bank stabilization on point bar sediment and phosphorus storage. Paper 244-4 in Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, V. 55, no. 6., Pittsburgh, PA, doi: 10.1130/abs/2023AM-393502.

Moore, P.L., J.V. Allen, T.L. Lambert, F.F. Williams, and J. Thomas, 2023, Bank stabilization: a tool for sediment and phosphorus control? Talk delivered 2/27/23 at the Upper Midwest Stream Restoration Symposium, Lacrosse, WI.

This award indirectly leveraged $17,776 from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

June 2023

All samples collected in the field have now been analyzed for bulk density, total phosphorus (in our partner lab at NLAE), and a host of other properties (at Midwest Labs) including texture, organic matter, metal cations and other P extractions. Topographic survey data and LiDAR point clouds have been fused into snapshots of geomorphic change. These sediment properties and geospatial data are now being analyzed together to assess differences between stabilized and unstabilized bends in terms of net sediment and phosphorus inputs.

Related activities and accomplishments 

- 1 presentation

M.S. student Tanner Lambert has submitted an abstract to the Geological Society of America annual meeting, to be held in October (15-18) in Pittsburg. He will present a summary of his results to date. Also, on August 12, we will contribute to an outreach activity associated with the annual meeting of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents to be held at Whiterock Conservancy. I will co-lead a discussion of bank erosion and bank stabilization and their impacts on water quality.

One proposal was submitted to the INRC for follow-up work that would effectively complete all key terms in the sediment and P budget within a portion of the Nishnabotna River corridor. To date, five proposals that build on this project have been submitted -  $104,963.

Total cumulative dollars submitted - $407,334

December 2022

A crew including graduate student Tanner Lambert and three undergraduate research assistants completed a full season of fieldwork at selected sites along the West Nishnabotna River in southwest Iowa. They laid out transects on six point bar and floodplain features, surveyed cross-sections, described vegetation and sampled sediment for texture and total P analyses. Those lab analyses are now underway at a partner lab (USDA Agricultural Research Service National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment). Meanwhile, the first stage of LiDAR point cloud comparison is complete, and researchers are analyzing a DoD (DEM of Difference) computed from the geomorphic changes identified between 2010 and 2020.

Other activities included working with INRC to develop a video describing our project, which is now available on the INRC website.  

June 2022

The graduate student helping lead the project has assembled a field crew (four undergraduate field and laboratory assistants) and developed standard field procedures for collecting field data during the summer 2022 field season, currently underway. A reconnaissance crew paddled canoes down approximately 30 miles of the West Nishnabotna River, which is the focus of this study. Initial preliminary point cloud differencing has been done to estimate geomorphic change in the study reach and to select candidate sites for field study. Ongoing field data collection and sample processing will continue through the remainder of the summer field season, July-August 2022.

Other activities included one presentation.

January 2022

Since project initiation in summer 2021, a graduate student (ISU Geology, M.S. student 2021-2024) was recruited, who began work on the project in July and who will complete much of the work detailed in the proposal in the coming two years.

Thus far, activities have been limited to developing standard field procedures for accessing, describing and sampling point bar and floodplain sediments and soils. In addition, the final days of 2021 saw the first availability of point clouds from Iowa's 2019-2020 LiDAR flights, though only for a limited number of counties. Even so, we have begun to develop a workflow for geomorphic change detection using the 2010 and 2020 LiDAR point clouds using the software package CloudCompare. This has been tested in and around a short reach of the Thompson River, near Davis City, Iowa. Once point clouds are available for the study area (primarily the middle sections of the Nishnabotna River, expected to be available Jan. 2022), the analysis workflow will be scaled up to estimate sediment erosion and accretion at selected migrating bends of the river. From these data, target areas will be identified for sampling in the summer 2022 field campaign.