We have investigated the sources, dispersal, and fate of fine sediment supplied to California coastal waters in a partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the California Sediment Management Workgroup (CSMW). The purpose of this study was to document the rates and characteristics of these processes so that the State can better manage its coastal resources, including sediment. In this study, we made the following observations:
- Rivers dominate the supply of fine sediment to the California coastal waters, with an average annual flux of 34 megatonnes (Mt).
- Cliff and bluff erosion in central and southern California is a source of fine sediment, with a delivery rate of approximately 10 percent of river loads. In the southern most part of the State, however, where river-sediment loads are low, cliff and bluff erosion represent approximately 40 percent of the total fine-sediment flux.
- Temporal variation in the sources of fine sediment is high. River floods and bluff erosion are episodic and dominated by winter storms, which supply most sediment flux to the coast. The magnitude of winter storms is generally related to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) climate cycles.
- The three rivers that dominate fine-sediment flux to the California coast are the Eel, Salinas, and Santa Clara Rivers. Because the sediment delivery from these and all other California coastal watersheds is episodic, individual rivers discharge most of their annual loads over the course of only a few days per year.
- Spatial variation in river-sediment discharge is high and generally related to such watershed characteristics as geology, precipitation, and drainage area. For example, the Transverse Range of southern California represents only 9 percent of the watershed-drainage area but 18 percent of the fine-sediment flux, a function of the young sedimentary bedrock and active tectonics of this region. The urban rivers of southern California were observed to discharge sediment at rates consistent with those of the surrounding Transverse Range rivers, which share the same geologic setting.
- Direct observations of fine-sediment dispersal have been limited to the river-mouth settings of the Eel and Santa Clara Rivers, where sediment has been observed to settle quickly from buoyant plumes and be transported along the seabed during periods of storm waves.
- After heavy loading of fine sediment onto the continental shelf during river floods, there is increasing evidence that fluid-mud gravity flows occur within a layer 10 to 50 cm above the seabed and efficiently transport fine sediment offshore.
- All along the California coast, the timing of river discharge and coastal winds and waves from storm events are strongly coherent; however, of large wave events with the potential for resuspending and transporting fine sediment occur during periods without significant rainfall and therefore no significant river discharge.
- Although fine sediment dominates the midshelf mud belts offshore of California river mouths, these mud belts are not the dominant sink of fine sediment, much of which is deposited across the entire continental shelf, including the inner shelf, and offshelf into deeper water depths.
- Accumulation rates of fine sediment, which can exceed several millimeters per year, are generally highest near river sources of sediment and along the inner shelf and midshelf.
- Sediment-accumulation rates, as summarized from both long-term and recent investigations of continental-shelf geochronology, are generally consistent across California except in southern California, where recently the sediment-accumulation rate has been tenfold greater than the long-term rate, possibly as a result of increased river discharge, wastewater outfall inputs, or other anthropogenic sources.
Thus, fine sediment is a natural and dynamic element of the California coastal system because of large, natural sediment sources and dynamic transport processes.