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Sediment transport in two tributaries to the San Joaquin River immediately below Friant Dam—Cottonwood Creek and Little Dry Creek, California

May 2, 2023

Two tributaries to the greater San Joaquin River watershed, Cottonwood and Little Dry Creeks, in California’s Central Valley, were assessed for sediment and streamflow dynamics between October 1, 2011, and September 30, 2019. The two systems deliver sediment to the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam, California. Dams create downstream discontinuities in streamflow and sediment transport and therefore influence fish habitat and sediment dynamics. Because these two creeks are directly downriver from Friant Dam, they become the most upstream source of sediment to the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam.

The quality and quantity of spawning habitat for fish in the gravel-bedded reach of the San Joaquin River relies on a range of bed material particle size suitable for redd structure. The effects of coarse-sand to fine-gravel supply on salmonid habitat depends primarily on the size of the sediment and the timing of its addition from tributaries to the San Joaquin River; thus, understanding the timing, quantity, and size of sediment supplied from these two tributaries is critical to the management of ecological and biological sustainability.

Streamflow from Cottonwood and Little Dry Creeks, along with streamflow from the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam, were compared to continuously measured water-surface elevations to quantify the timing and direction of streamflow. Suspended-sediment samples were collected with multiple automatic samplers and analyzed for concentration and grain-size distribution. Measured suspended-sediment concentrations and streamflows were used to develop sediment rating curves and compute continuous estimates of suspended-sediment load for each tributary. Satellite imagery was used to qualify spatial and temporal dynamics through the lower watersheds and support more quantitative sediment-load estimates.

Computed annual sediment loads ranged from 1.32x101 to 2.68x104 metric tons for Little Dry Creek and 9.82 to 1.98x103 metric tons for Cottonwood Creek. Sediment loads computed during the study period for both watersheds show that annual loads were highest during water year 2017 (October 1, 2016, to September 30, 2017). Sediment transport primarily occurred between the months of January and March. In both tributaries, grain-size distributions of suspended sediment were predominantly coarse-sized sand and were finer than the remnant bed material.

Both creeks demonstrate backwater effects from the San Joaquin River, but the more tortuous stream channel and historical mining pits within Little Dry Creek provide more capacity for sediment storage compared to the less complex stream network of Cottonwood Creek. Because loads were computed based on upstream streamgages and not at the confluence of each tributary to the San Joaquin River, annual load estimates do not represent direct flux into the San Joaquin River; instead, these results indicated that in Little Dry Creek, particularly, the lowest portion of the watershed stores sediment before it reaches the San Joaquin River.

Publication Year 2023
Title Sediment transport in two tributaries to the San Joaquin River immediately below Friant Dam—Cottonwood Creek and Little Dry Creek, California
DOI 10.3133/sir20235023
Authors Dan R.W. Haught, Mathieu D. Marineau, Justin Toby Minear, Scott A. Wright, Joan V. Lopez
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2023-5023
Index ID sir20235023
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center