Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Sediment export and impacts associated with river delta channelization compound estuary vulnerability to sea-level rise, Skagit River Delta, Washington, USA

September 6, 2020

Improved understanding of the budget and retention of sediment in river deltas is becoming increasingly important to mitigate and plan for impacts expected with sea level rise. In this study, analyses of historical bathymetric change, sediment core stratigraphy, and modeling are used to evaluate the sediment budget and environmental response of the largest river delta in the U.S. Pacific Northwest to western land-use change beginning in ~1850. An estimated 142±28 M m3 of sediment accumulated offshore of the emergent Skagit River delta in Washington State between 1890 and 2014 and ~68% of which was found in sand deposits. The fraction of sediment retained in sand reservoirs represents 83% of the expected fluvial sand delivery over this time suggesting their potential utility to evaluate the relative contribution of different land uses to sediment runoff through time. A significantly higher ratio of sand retention to delivery during the period 1890–1939 coincided with extensive watershed denudation (clear-cut logging) and channel dredging, relative to the period 1940–2014, which was characterized by improved forest practices and sediment management to protect endangered species but also more extensive river channelization. Retention in the delta foreset of 78% of the sand delivered by the river between 1890 and 1939 was associated with extensive sediment bypassing and delta progradation that is shown to be 5–10x higher than rates over the Holocene. Comparable offshore sand retention over time and higher nearshore retention subsequent to 1940 after normalizing for the assumed reduction in sediment runoff with improved forest practices, suggests that channelization has continued to influence sediment export at a magnitude equivalent to the effects of early logging. Adverse impacts of the bypassing sediment regime to natural hazards risk and ecosystem management concerns are discussed, including the role of the lost sediment as a resource to mitigate subsiding coastal lands vulnerable to flood impacts. The sediment budget and coastal change analyses provide a framework for evaluating opportunities to achieve greater resilience across several sectors of coastal land use important in low-lying deltas worldwide.