A manual to identify sources of fluvial sediment

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Sediment is an important pollutant of concern that can degrade and alter aquatic habitat. A sediment budget is an accounting of the sources, storage, and export of sediment over a defined spatial and temporal scale. This manual focuses on field approaches to estimate a sediment budget. We also highlight the sediment fingerprinting approach to attribute sediment to different watershed sources. Determining the sources and sinks of sediment is important in developing strategies to reduce sediment loads to water bodies impaired by sediment. Therefore, this manual can be used when developing a sediment TMDL requiring identification of sediment sources.

The manual takes the user through the seven necessary steps to construct a sediment budget:

  1. Decision-making for watershed scale and time period of interest
  2. Familiarization with the watershed by conducting a literature review, compiling background information and maps relevant to study questions, conducting a reconnaissance of the watershed
  3. Developing partnerships with landowners and jurisdictions
  4. Characterization of watershed geomorphic setting
  5. Development of a sediment budget design
  6. Data collection
  7. Interpretation and construction of the sediment budget
  8. Generating products (maps, reports, and presentations) to communicate findings.

Sediment budget construction begins with examining the question(s) being asked and whether a sediment budget is necessary to answer these question(s). If undertaking a sediment budget analysis is a viable option, the next step is to define the spatial scale of the watershed and the time scale needed to answer the question(s). Of course, we understand that monetary constraints play a big role in any decision.

Early in the sediment budget development process, we suggest getting to know your watershed by conducting a reconnaissance and meeting with local stakeholders. The reconnaissance aids in understanding the geomorphic setting of the watershed and potential sources of sediment. Identifying the potential sediment sources early in the design of the sediment budget will help later in deciding which tools are necessary to monitor erosion and/or deposition at these sources. Tools can range from rapid inventories to estimate the sediment budget or quantifying sediment erosion, deposition, and export through more rigorous field monitoring. In either approach, data are gathered and erosion and deposition calculations are determined and compared to the sediment export with a description of the error uncertainty. Findings are presented to local stakeholders and management officials.

Sediment fingerprinting is a technique that apportions the sources of fine-grained sediment in a watershed using tracers or fingerprints. Due to different geologic and anthropogenic histories, the chemical and physical properties of sediment in a watershed may vary and often represent a unique signature (or fingerprint) for each source within the watershed. Fluvial sediment samples (the target sediment) are also collected and exhibit a composite of the source properties that can be apportioned through various statistical techniques. Using an unmixing-model and error analysis, the final apportioned sediment is determined.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
Federal Government Series
A manual to identify sources of fluvial sediment
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Contributing office(s):
Wisconsin Water Science Center, Maryland Water Science Center
xi, 106 p.