River plumes are important pathways of terrestrial materials entering the sea. In southern California, rivers are known to be the dominant source of littoral, shelf and basin sediment and coastal pollution, although a basic understanding of the dynamics of these river inputs does not exist. Here we evaluate forcing parameters of a southern California river plume using ship-based hydrographic surveys and satellite remote sensing measurements to provide the first insights of river dispersal dynamics in southern California. Our results suggest that plumes of the Santa Clara River are strongly influenced by river inertia, producing jet-like structures ~10 km offshore during annual recurrence (~two-year) flood events and ~30 km during exceptional (~10-year recurrence) floods. Upwelling-favorable winds may be strong following stormwater events and can alter dispersal pathways of thse plumes. Due to similar runoff relationships and other reported satellite observations, we hypothesize that interia-dominated dispersal may be an important characteristic of the small, mountainous rivers throughout southern California.