The spatial and temporal variability of sediment sources, storage, and transport were investigated in a small agricultural watershed draining the Coast Ranges and Sacramento Valley in central California. Results of field, laboratory, and historical data analysis in the Willow Slough fluvial system document changes that transformed a transport-limited depositional system to an effective erosion and transport system, despite a large sediment supply. These changes were caused by a combination of factors: (i) an increase in transport capacity, and (ii) hydrologic alteration. Alteration of the riparian zone and drainage network pattern during the past ~ 150 years included a twofold increase in straightened channel segments along with a baselevel change from excavation that increased slope, and increased sediment transport capacity by ~ 7%. Hydrologic alteration from irrigation water contributions also increased transport capacity, by extending the period with potential for sediment transport and erosion by ~ 6 months/year. Field measurements document Quaternary Alluvium as a modern source of fine sediment with grain size distributions characterized by 5 to 40% fine material. About 60% of an upland and 30% of a lowland study reach incised into this deposit exhibit bank erosion. During this study, the wet 2006 and relatively dry 2007 water years exhibited a range of total annual suspended sediment load spanning two orders of magnitude: ~ 108,500 kg/km2/year during 2006 and 5,950 kg/km2/year during 2007, only 5% of that during the previous year. Regional implications of this work are illustrated by the potential for a small tributary such as Willow Slough to contribute sediment – whereas large dams limit sediment supply from larger tributaries – to the Sacramento River and San Francisco Bay Delta and Estuary. This work is relevant to lowland agricultural river–floodplain systems globally in efforts to restore aquatic and riparian functions and where water quality management includes reducing fine sediment contributions that can couple with other pollutants.