The Accuracy of River Bed Sediment Samples

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Virginia Tech

One of the most important factors that influences a stream's hydraulic and ecological health is the streambed's sediment size distribution. This distribution affects streambed stability, sediment transport rates, and flood levels by defining the roughness of the stream channel. Adverse effects on water quality and wildlife can be expected when excessive fine sediments enter a stream. Many chemicals and toxic materials are transported through streams by binding to fine sediments. Increases in fine sediments also seriously impact the survival of fish species present in the stream. Fine sediments fill tiny spaces between larger particles thereby denying fish embryos the necessary fresh water to survive. Reforestation, constructed wetlands, and slope stabilization are a few management practices typically utilized to reduce the amount of sediment entering a stream. To effectively gauge the success of these techniques, the sediment size distribution of the stream must be monitored.

Gravel bed streams are typically stratified vertically, in terms of particle size, in three layers, with each layer having its own distinct grain size distribution. The top two layers of the stream bed, the pavement and subpavement, are the most significant in determining the characteristics of the stream. These top two layers are only as thick as the largest particle size contained within each layer. This vertical stratification by particle size makes it difficult to characterize the grain size distribution of the surface layer. The traditional bulk or volume sampling procedure removes a specified volume of material from the stream bed. However, if the bed exhibits vertical stratification, the volume sample will mix different populations, resulting in inaccurate sample results. To obtain accurate results for the pavement size distribution, a surface oriented sampling technique must be employed. The most common types of surface oriented sampling are grid and areal sampling. Due to limitations in the sampling techniques, grid samples typically truncate the sample at the finer grain sizes, while areal samples typically truncate the sample at the coarser grain sizes. When combined with an analysis technique, either frequency-by-number or frequency-by-weight, the sample results can be represented in terms of a cumulative grain size distribution. However, the results of different sampling and analysis procedures can lead to biased results, which are not equivalent to traditional volume sampling results. Different conversions, dependent on both the sampling and analysis technique, are employed to remove the bias from surface sample results.

The topic of the present study is to determine the accuracy of sediment samples obtained by the different sampling techniques. Knowing the accuracy of a sample is imperative if the sample results are to be meaningful. Different methods are discussed for placing confidence intervals on grid sample results based on statistical distributions. The binomial distribution and its approximation with the normal distribution have been suggested for these confidence intervals in previous studies. In this study, the use of the multinomial distribution for these confidence intervals is also explored. The multinomial distribution seems to best represent the grid sampling process. Based on analyses of the different distributions, recommendations are made. Additionally, figures are given to estimate the grid sample size necessary to achieve a required accuracy for each distribution. This type of sample size determination figure is extremely useful when preparing for grid sampling in the field.

Accuracy and sample size determination for areal and volume samples present difficulties not encountered with grid sampling. The variability in number of particles contained in the sample coupled with the wide range of particle sizes present make direct statistical analysis impossible. Limited studies have been reported on the necessary volume to sample for gravel deposits. The majority of these studies make recommendations based on empirical results that may not be applicable to different size distributions. Even fewer studies have been published that address the issue of areal sample size. However, using grid sample results as a basis, a technique is presented to estimate the necessary sizes for areal and volume samples. These areal and volume sample sizes are designed to match the accuracy of the original grid sample for a specified grain size percentile of interest. Obtaining grid and areal results with the same accuracy can be useful when considering hybrid samples. A hybrid sample represents a combination of grid and areal sample results that give a final grain size distribution curve that is not truncated. Laboratory experiments were performed on synthetic stream beds to test these theories. The synthetic stream beds were created using both glass beads and natural sediments. Reducing sampling errors and obtaining accurate samples in the field are also briefly discussed. Additionally, recommendations are also made for using the most efficient sampling technique to achieve the required accuracy.

gravel bed streams, multinomial confidence intervals, sediment sampling, sample size estimation, grain size distributions