Remote sensing offers an efficient means of mapping bathymetry in river systems, but this approach has been applied primarily to clear-flowing, gravel bed streams. This study used field spectroscopy and radiative transfer modeling to assess the feasibility of spectrally based depth retrieval in a sand-bed river with a higher suspended sediment concentration (SSC) and greater water turbidity. Attenuation of light within the water column was characterized by measuring the amount of downwelling radiant energy at different depths and calculating a diffuse attenuation coefficient, Kd. Attenuation was strongest in blue and near-infrared bands due to scattering by suspended sediment and absorption by water, respectively. Even for red wavelengths with the lowest values of Kd, only a small fraction of the incident light propagated to the bed, restricting the range of depths amenable to remote sensing. Spectra recorded above the water surface were used to establish a strong, linear relationship (R2 = 0.949) between flow depth and a simple band ratio; even under moderately turbid conditions, depth remained the primary control on reflectance. Constraints on depth retrieval were examined via numerical modeling of radiative transfer within the atmosphere and water column. SSC and sensor radiometric resolution limited both the maximum detectable depth and the precision of image-derived depth estimates. Thus, although field spectra indicated that the bathymetry of turbid channels could be remotely mapped, model results implied that depth retrieval in sediment-laden rivers would be limited to shallow depths (on the order of 0.5 m) and subject to a significant degree of uncertainty. ?? 2011 by the American Geophysical Union.