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Comparison of turbidity to multi-frequency sideways-looking acoustic-Doppler data and suspended-sediment data in the Colorado River in Grand Canyon

June 1, 2010

Water clarity is important to biologists when studying fish and other fluvial fauna and flora. Turbidity is an indicator of the cloudiness of water, or reduced water clarity, and is commonly measured using nephelometric sensors that record the scattering and absorption of light by particles in the water. Unfortunately, nephelometric sensors only operate over a narrow range of the conditions typically encountered in rivers dominated by suspended-sediment transport. For example, sediment inputs into the Colorado River in Grand Canyon caused by tributary floods often result in turbidity levels that exceed the maximum recording level of nephelometric turbidity sensors. The limited range of these sensors is one reason why acoustic Doppler profiler instrument data, not turbidity, has been used as a surrogate for suspended sediment concentration and load of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. However, in addition to being an important water-quality parameter to biologists, turbidity of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon has been used to strengthen the suspended-sediment record through the process of turbidity-threshold sampling; high turbidity values trigger a pump sampler to collect samples of the river at critical times for gathering suspended-sediment data. Turbidity depends on several characteristics of suspended sediment including concentration, particle size, particle shape, color, and the refractive index of particles. In this paper, turbidity is compared with other parameters coupled to suspended sediment, namely suspended-silt and clay concentration and multifrequency acoustic attenuation. These data have been collected since 2005 at four stations with different sediment-supply characteristics on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. These comparisons reveal that acoustic attenuation is a particularly useful parameter, because it is strongly related to turbidity and it can be measured by instruments that experience minimal fouling and record over the entire range of turbidity encountered in the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. Relating turbidity to acoustic attenuation and suspended-silt and clay concentration provides an additional benefit in that data outliers are revealed that likely identify inflow events from anomalous sources with unusual sediment characteristics.