Mapping subaqueous riverbed sediment grain size across channels and in nearshore areas typically used by fish and benthic invertebrates is difficult where and when the water flow is too swift or deep to wade yet impractical to access with large boats and instruments. Fluvial characteristics can further constrain sampling options, particularly where flow depth, water column turbidity or channel bottom structure prohibit use of aerial or bottom deployed imaging platforms.
Here we discuss considerations in the use of sidescan sonar for riverbed sediment classification using examples from two large rivers, the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona and the Upper Penobscot River in northern Maine (Figure 3). These case studies represent two fluvial systems that differ in recent history, physiography, sediment transport, and fluvial morphologies. The bed of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is predominantly graveled with extensive mats of submerged vegetation, and ephemeral surficial sand deposits exist below major tributaries. The bed is imaged periodically to assess the importance of substrate type and variability on rainbow trout spawning and juvenile rearing habitats and controls on aquatic invertebrate population dynamics. The Colorado River bed further below the dam in Grand Canyon National Park is highly dynamic. Tributary inputs of sand, gravel and boulders are spatially variable, and hydraulics of individual pools and eddies vary considerably in space and in response to varying dam operations, including experimental controlled flood releases to rebuild eroding sandbars. The bed encompasses the full range of noncohesive sediments, deposited in complicated spatial patterns. The mobile portion of the Penobscot River is generally more uniform, and consists predominantly of embedded gravels interspersed between bedrock outcrops with small isolated sand patches in sections with modest or low gradients. Patches of large cobbles, boulders and bedrock outcrops are present in the lower reaches of the river near locations of two recent dam removal projects but are of limited extent below the "head of tide" on the river. Aggregations of coarse materials often correspond to locations with abrupt bed elevation drops in the Upper Penobscot River.