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Importance of measuring discharge and sediment transport in lesser tributaries when closing sediment budgets

September 7, 2017

Sediment budgets are an important tool for understanding how riverine ecosystems respond to perturbations. Changes in the quantity and grain size distribution of sediment within river systems affect the channel morphology and related habitat resources. It is therefore important for resource managers to know if a river reach is in a state of sediment accumulation, deficit or stasis. Many sediment-budget studies have estimated the sediment loads of ungaged tributaries using regional sediment-yield equations or other similar techniques. While these approaches may be valid in regions where rainfall and geology are uniform over large areas, use of sediment-yield equations may lead to poor estimations of loads in regions where rainfall events, contributing geology, and vegetation have large spatial and/or temporal variability.

Previous estimates of the combined mean-annual sediment load of all ungaged tributaries to the Colorado River downstream from Glen Canyon Dam vary by over a factor of three; this range in estimated sediment loads has resulted in different researchers reaching opposite conclusions on the sign (accumulation or deficit) of the sediment budget for particular reaches of the Colorado River. To better evaluate the supply of fine sediment (sand, silt, and clay) from these tributaries to the Colorado River, eight gages were established on previously ungaged tributaries in Glen, Marble, and Grand canyons. Results from this sediment-monitoring network show that previous estimates of the annual sediment loads of these tributaries were too high and that the sediment budget for the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam is more negative than previously calculated by most researchers. As a result of locally intense rainfall events with footprints smaller than the receiving basin, floods from a single tributary in semi-arid regions can have large (≥ 10 ×) differences in sediment concentrations between equal magnitude flows. Because sediment loads do not necessarily correlate with drainage size, and may vary by two orders of magnitude on an annual basis, using techniques such as sediment-yield equations to estimate the sediment loads of ungaged tributaries may lead to large errors in sediment budgets.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2017
Title Importance of measuring discharge and sediment transport in lesser tributaries when closing sediment budgets
DOI 10.1016/j.geomorph.2017.08.037
Authors Ronald E. Griffiths, David Topping
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Geomorphology
Index ID 70190551
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center