Cenozoic strata on the Great Plains are the products of a long-lived, continental sediment routing system, and yet strikingly little is known about these ancient rivers. This article details the discovery of ~3100 fluvial ridges—erosionally inverted alluvial-fan, channel-fill, channel-belt, and valley-fill deposits—extending from the Rocky Mountain front to the eastern margin of the Great Plains. The direct detection of these channel bodies reveals new insights into late Eocene-Pliocene drainage evolution. Late Eocene-Oligocene streams were morphologically diverse. Alluvial fans adjacent to the Rocky Mountain front changed eastward to parallel or downstream-divergent, fixed, single-thread, straight to slightly sinuous (S = 1.0-1.5) streams <50 m in width. At ~100 km from the Rocky Mountain front, streams became sinuous and laterally mobile, forming amalgamated channel bodies as much as 3 km in width. Streamflow in all these systems was highly dispersed (southeast to northeast) and temporally variable. These characteristics reveal a nascent Great Plains alluvial apron hosting small, poorly integrated drainages undergoing abrupt changes. By the Miocene, more uniform streamflow generally trended east-northeast. Channel deposits are identifi-able 500 km from the Rocky Mountain front. Middle Miocene valley fills gave way to fixed, multithread channels a few kilometers in width by the late Miocene. These patterns evince a mature alluvial apron hosting bigger rivers in well-integrated drainages. We interpret the systematic changes between fixed and mobile channel styles to record spatially and temporally variable aggradation rates. The widening of channels in the late Miocene likely reflects increased discharge relating to wetter climates upstream or the integration of once-isolated Rocky Mountain drainage basins into a continental-scale drainage system.
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