Advanced Suspended Sediment Sampling and Simulation of Sediment Pulses to Better Predict Fluvial Geomorphic Change in River Networks

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


Sediment, an integral part of rivers and watersheds, is eroded from, stored in, and transported through various watershed components. Rivers often receive sediment in the form of episodic, discrete pulses from a variety of natural and anthropogenic processes, this sediment can be transported downstream along the bed or suspended in the water column. Most sediment measurements are focused on the component suspended in the water column. Recent advances in data collection techniques have substantially increased both the resolution and spatial scale of data on suspended sediment dynamics, which is helpful in linking small, site-scale measurements of transport processes in the field with large-scale modeling efforts. Part of this research evaluates the accuracy of the latest laser diffraction instrument for suspended-sediment measurement in rivers, LISST-SL2 for measuring suspended sediment concentration (SSC), particle size distribution (PSD), and velocity by comparing to concurrent physical samples analyzed in a lab for SSC and PSD, and velocity measured using an acoustic Doppler current profiler (ADCP) at 11 sites in Washington and Virginia during 2018-2020. Another part of this work employs a 1-D river network, bed material transport model to investigate the magnitude, timing, and persistence of downstream changes due to the introduction of sediment pulses in a linear river network. We specifically focus on comparing bed responses between mixed and uniform grain size sediment pulses. Then the model capability is utilized to explore the control of hydrograph structure on debris flow sediment transport through a more complex river network at different time horizons. Another part of this work investigates the effect of differences in spatial distribution of debris flow sediment input to the network by analyzing corresponding tributary and mainstem characteristics. Based on an extensive dataset, our results highlight the need for a correction of the raw LISST-SL2 measurements to improve the estimation of effective density and particle size distribution with the help of a physical sample. Simulation results from the river network model show that bed response is primarily influenced by the sediment-pulse grain size and distribution. Intermediate mixed-size pulses are likely to have the largest downstream impact because finer sizes translate quickly and coarser sizes (median bed gravel size and larger) disperse slowly. Furthermore, a mixed-size pulse, with a smaller median grain size than the bed, increases bed mobility more than a uniform-size pulse. While investigating the hydrologic control on debris flow simulation, this study finds that differences between transport by a 30-year daily hydrograph and simplified hydrographs were greatest in the first few years, but errors decreased to around 10% after 10 years. Our simulation results highlight that the sequence of flows (initial high/low flow) is less important for transport of finer sediment. We show that such network-scale modeling can quantitatively identify geomorphically significant network characteristics for efficient transport from tributaries to the mainstem, and eventually to the outlet. Results suggest that watershed area and slope characteristics are important to predict aggradation hotspots in a network. However, to predict aggradation and fluvial geomorphic responses to variations in sediment supply from river network characteristics more confidently, more widespread (in several other river networks) model applications with field validation would be useful. This work has important implications for river management, as it allows us to better predict geomorphically significant tributaries and potential impact on downstream locations, which are important for river biodiversity. Model results lead the way to use of simplified flow hydrographs for different timescales, which is crucial in large-scale modeling as it is often restricted by computational capacity. Finally, given the ability for reliable quantification of a high-resolution time-series of different suspended-sediment characteristics, in-stream laser diffraction offers great potential to advance our understanding of suspended-sediment transport.



Sediment transport, Sediment pulse, Debris flow, River network model, Bedload, Suspended sediment, LISST-SL2