Measuring the impact of urbanization on channel widths using historic aerial photographs and modern surveys

Joshua C. Galster, Frank J. Pazzaglia, Dru Germanoski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Land use in a watershed is commonly held to exert a strong influence on trunk channel form and process. Land use changes act over human time-scales, which are short enough to measure effects on channels directly using historic aerial photographs. We show that high-resolution topographic surveys for the channels of paired watersheds in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, are comparable, but have channel widths that have changed dramatically in the past five decades. The two watersheds, Little Lehigh Creek and Sacony Creek, are similar in most aspects except in their respective amount of urban land use. Aerial photographs of the urbanized Little Lehigh Creek show that a majority of the measured widths (67 of 85) were statistically wider in 1999 than in 1947. In contrast, the measured widths from the agricultural Sacony Creek are more evenly distributed among those that widened (18), narrowed (28), and those that were statistically unchanged (6) from 1946 to 1999. From 1946 to 1999 the only section of Sacony Creek that widened was that reach downstream of the only sizable urban area in the watershed. The current land use in Sacony Creek watershed resembles that of 1946, while the Little Lehigh Creek watershed has more than tripled its urban area. These data, in concert with other recent hydrologic data from the watersheds suggest that the increase in urban area-generated peak discharges is the mechanism behind the widening that occurred in the Little Lehigh Creek. These wider channels can affect water quality, aquatic habitat, suspended sediment loads, and river esthetics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)948-960
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of the American Water Resources Association
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2008


  • Erosion
  • Fluvial geomorphology
  • Fluvial processes
  • Geographic information system
  • Runoff
  • Urbanization
  • Watersheds


Dive into the research topics of 'Measuring the impact of urbanization on channel widths using historic aerial photographs and modern surveys'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this