Bottom sediments and nutrients in the tidal Potomac system, Maryland and Virginia

Water Supply Paper 2234-F




The characteristics and distributions of near-surface bottom sediments and of nutrients in the sediments provide information on modern sediment and nutrient sources, sedimentation environments, and geochemical reactions in the tidal Potomac system, Maryland and Virginia. This information is fundamental to an improved understanding of sedimentation and eutrophication problems in the tidal Potomac system. The tidal Potomac system consists of 1,230 square kilometers of intertidal to subtidal Potomac mainstem and tributary streambed from the heads-of-tides to Chesapeake Bay. Tidal Potomac sediments are dominantly silt and clay except in local areas. An average sediment sample is about two-thirds silt and clay (fine) particles and one-third sand (coarse) particles. The mean of the median size of all samples is 6.60 phi, or 0.010 millimeters. Sorting generally is poor and the average sediment is skewed toward the fine tail of the size-distribution curve. Mean particle-size measures have large standard deviations. Among geomorphic units, two distinctly different size populations are found; fine (median phi about 9), and poorly sorted (sorting about 3) sediments in the channel and the smooth flat, and coarse (median phi about 2), and well sorted (sorting about 1) sediments in the shoreline flat and the irregular slope. Among mainstem hydrologic divisions, an average sediment from the river and the estuary division is coarser and more variable than an average sediment from the transition division. Substantial concentrations of total carbon, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus, and limited amounts of inorganic carbon, ammonia nitrogen and nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen occur in tidal Potomac sediments. An average tidal Potomac sediment sample weighing 1 kilogram contains about 21,000 milligrams of total carbon, 2,400 milligrams of total nitrogen, 1,200 milligrams of total phosphorus, 600 milligrams of inorganic carbon, 170 milligrams of ammonia nitrogen, and 2 milligrams of nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen. Total carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus have an average ratio by weight of 18:2:1 and an average ratio by atoms of 94:8:1. Nutrient concentrations and nutrient ratios have large ranges and standard deviations. Nutrient concentrations usually are closely related to particle size; large concentrations are characteristic of fine sediments in the channel and the smooth flat, and small concentrations are typical of coarse sediments in the shoreline flat and the irregular slope. Concentrations typically decrease from the river division to the estuary division. Mainstem and tributaries show no statistically significant difference in mean particle-size measures or mean nutrient concentrations. Tributaries do not contribute large quantities of sediment with diverse texture or nutrient content to the Potomac mainstem. Particle-size measures and nutrient concentrations in the mainstem are significantly related to hydrologic divisions and geomorphic units; that is, particle size and nutrients vary significantly along and across the Potomac mainstem. Lateral variations in particle size and nutrient content are more pronounced and contribute more to significant relations than longitudinal variations contribute. The mean values for the median particle size and for the percentage of sand indicate significant variations among hydrologic divisions for samples from a geomorphic unit, and among geomorphic units, for samples from a hydrologic division. Sediments of channels and smooth flats in the river division commonly are coarser than sediments of channels and smooth flats in the transition and the estuary divisions. Shoreline flats in the estuary division are coarser than shoreline flats in the river division. Shoreline flats and irregular slopes in each hydrologic division generally are significantly coarser than channels and smooth flats. Relations between particle-size measures and geomorphic units show progressively larger cor

Additional Publication Details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Bottom sediments and nutrients in the tidal Potomac system, Maryland and Virginia
Series title:
Water Supply Paper
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. G.P.O.,
viii, 74 p. :ill., maps ;28 cm.