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Coherence between coastal and river flooding along the California coast

October 24, 2017

Water levels around river mouths are intrinsically determined by sea level and river discharge. If storm-associated coastal water-level anomalies coincide with extreme river discharge, landscapes near river mouths will be flooded by the hydrodynamic interactions of these two water masses. Unfortunately, the temporal relationships between ocean and river water masses are not well understood. The coherence between extreme river discharge and coastal water levels at six California river mouths across different climatic and geographic regions was examined. Data from river gauges, wave buoys, and tide gauges from 2007 to 2014 were integrated to investigate the relationships between extreme river discharge and coastal water levels near the mouths of the Eel, Russian, San Lorenzo, Ventura, Arroyo Trabuco, and San Diego rivers. Results indicate that mean and extreme coastal water levels during extreme river discharge are significantly higher compared with background conditions. Elevated coastal water levels result from the combination of nontidal residuals (NTRs) and wave setups. Mean and extreme (>99th percentile of observations) NTRs are 3–20 cm and ∼30 cm higher during extreme river discharge conditions, respectively. Mean and extreme wave setups are up to 40 cm and ∼20–90 cm higher during extreme river discharge than typical conditions, respectively. These water-level anomalies were generally greatest for the northern rivers and least for the southern rivers. Time-series comparisons suggest that increases in NTRs are largely coherent with extreme river discharge, owing to the low atmospheric pressure systems associated with storms. The potential flooding risks of the concurrent timing of these water masses are tempered by the mixed, semidiurnal tides of the region that have amplitudes of 2–2.5 m. In summary, flooding hazard assessments for floodplains near California river mouths for current or future conditions with sea-level rise should include the temporal coherence of fluvial and oceanic water levels.