Anastomosing rivers have multiple interconnected channels that enclose flood basins. Various theories potentially explain this pattern, including an increased discharge conveyance and sediment transport capacity of multiple channels, deltaic branching, avulsion forced by base-level rise, or a tendency to avulse due to upstream sediment overloading. The former two imply a stable anabranching channel pattern, whereas the latter two imply disequilibrium and evolution towards a single-channel pattern in the absence of avulsion. Our objective is to test these hypotheses on morphodynamic scenario modelling and data of a well-documented case study: the upper Columbia River. Proportions of channel and floodplain sediments along the river valley were derived from surface mapping. Initial and boundary conditions for the modelling were derived from field data. A 1D network model was built based on gradually varied flow equations, sediment transport prediction, mass conservation, transverse slope and spiral meander flow effects at the bifurcations. The number of channels and crevasse splays decreases in a downstream direction. Also, measured sediment transport is higher at the upstream boundary than downstream. These observations concur with bed sediment overloading from upstream, which can have caused channel aggradation above the surrounding floodplain and subsequent avulsion. The modelling also indicates that avulsion was likely caused by upstream overloading. In the model, multi-channel systems inevitably evolve towards single-channel systems within centuries. The reasons are that symmetric channel bifurcations are inherently unstable, while confluenced channels have relatively less friction than two parallel channels, so that more discharge is conveyed through the path with more confluences and less friction. Furthermore, the present longitudinal profile curvature of the valley could only be reproduced in the model by temporary overfeeding.
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