Abstract Suspended-sediment and dissolved-solid (salt) loads decreased after the early 1940s in the Colorado Plateau portion of the Colorado River basin, although discharge of major rivers — the Colorado, Green and San Juan — did not change significantly. This decline followed a period of high sediment yield caused by arroyo cutting. Reduced sediment loads have previously been explained by a change in sediment sampling procedures or changes in climate, land-use and conservation practices. More recent work has revealed that both decreased sediment production and sediment storage in channels of tributary basins produced the decline of sediment and salt loads. Sediment production and sediment storage are important components of incised-channel evolution, which involves sequential channel deepening, widening and finally floodplain formation. Accordingly, the widespread arroyo incision of the late nineteenth century resulted initially in high sediment loads. Since then, loads have decreased as incised channels (arroyos) have stabilized and begun to aggrade. However, during the 1940s, a period of low peak discharges permitted vegetational colonization of the valley floors, which further reduced sediment loads and promoted channel stabilization. This explanation is supported by experimental studies and field observations. Both geomorphic and hydrologic factors contributed to sediment storage and decreased sediment and salt loads in the upper Colorado River basin.