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Extending the turbidity record: making additional use of continuous data from turbidity, acoustic-Doppler, and laser diffraction instruments and suspended-sediment samples in the Colorado River in Grand Canyon

May 28, 2014

Turbidity is a measure of the scattering and absorption of light in water, which in rivers is primarily caused by particles, usually sediment, suspended in the water. Turbidity varies significantly with differences in the design of the instrument measuring turbidity, a point that is illustrated in this study by side-by-side comparisons of two different models of instruments. Turbidity also varies with changes in the physical parameters of the particles in the water, such as concentration, grain size, grain shape, and color. A turbidity instrument that is commonly used for continuous monitoring of rivers has a light source in the near-infrared range (860±30 nanometers) and a detector oriented 90 degrees from the incident light path. This type of optical turbidity instrument has a limited measurement range (depending on pathlength) that is unable to capture the high turbidity levels of rivers that carry high suspended-sediment loads. The Colorado River in Grand Canyon is one such river, in which approximately 60 percent of the range in suspended-sediment concentration during the study period had unmeasurable turbidity using this type of optical instrument. Although some optical turbidimeters using backscatter or other techniques can measure higher concentrations of suspended sediment than the models used in this study, the maximum turbidity measurable using these other turbidimeters may still be exceeded in conditions of especially high concentrations of suspended silt and clay. In Grand Canyon, the existing optical turbidity instruments remain in use in part to provide consistency over time as new techniques are investigated. As a result, during these periods of high suspended-sediment concentration, turbidity values that could not be measured with the optical turbidity instruments were instead estimated from concurrent acoustic attenuation data collected using side-looking acoustic-Doppler profiler (ADP) instruments. Extending the turbidity record to the full range of sediment concentrations in the study area using data from the ADP instruments is particularly useful for biological studies. In Grand Canyon, turbidity has been correlated with food availability for aquatic organisms (gross primary production) as well as with fish behavior specific to predator-prey interactions. On the basis of the complete “extended” turbidity record and the relation between suspended-sediment concentration and turbidity, levels were higher before the construction of Glen Canyon Dam by a factor of approximately 2,000 at the Lees Ferry monitoring station (15 miles downstream from the dam) and by a factor of approximately 20 at the monitoring station 87 miles downstream from Lees Ferry (102 miles downstream from the dam). A comparison of turbidity data with data from Laser In-Situ Scattering and Transmissometry (LISST) laser-diffraction instruments, suspended-sediment concentration data, and ADP data shows the influence of the physical properties of suspended sediment. Apparent outliers in relations between turbidity, ADP, and suspended-sediment data during two events within the study period, a 2007 tributary flood from a watershed altered by a recent wildfire and a 2008 experimental controlled-flood release from Glen Canyon Dam, are explained in part by atypical grain sizes, shapes, densities, colors, and (or) clay mineral assemblages of suspended sediment occurring in the Colorado River during these two events. These analyses demonstrate the value of using multiple data-collection strategies for turbidity and sediment-transport studies and of continuous monitoring for capturing the full range and duration of turbidity and sediment-transport conditions, identifying the provenance of the sediment causing turbidity, and detecting physical and chemical processes that may be important for management of critical physical and biological resources.