Large perturbations since the mid-1800s to the supply and source of sediment entering San Francisco Bay have disturbed natural processes for more than 150 years. Only recently have sediment inputs through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (the Delta) decreased to what might be considered pre-disturbance levels. Declining sediment inputs to San Francisco Bay raise concern about continued tidal marsh accretion, particularly if sea level rise accelerates in the future. The aim of this study is to explore whether the relative amount of local-watershed sediment accumulating in a tidal marsh has changed as sediment supply from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers has decreased. To address this question, sediment geochemical indicators, or signatures, in the fine fraction (silt and clay) of Sacramento River, San Joaquin River, San Francisco Bay, and Corte Madera Creek sediment were identified and applied in sediment recovered from Corte Madera Marsh, one of the few remaining natural marshes in San Francisco Bay. Total major, minor, trace, and rare earth element (REE) contents of fine sediment were determined by inductively coupled plasma mass and atomic emission spectroscopy. Fine sediment from potential source areas had the following geochemical signatures: Sacramento River sediment downstream of the confluence of the American River was characterized by enrichments in chromium, zirconium, and heavy REE; San Joaquin River sediment at Vernalis and Lathrop was characterized by enrichments in thorium and total REE content; Corte Madera Creek sediment had elevated nickel contents; and the composition of San Francisco Bay mud proximal to Corte Madera Marsh was intermediate between these sources. Most sediment geochemical signatures were relatively invariant for more than 150 years, suggesting that the composition of fine sediment in Corte Madera Marsh is not very sensitive to changes in the magnitude, timing, or source of sediment entering San Francisco Bay through the Delta. Nor does there appear to be a ubiquitous increase in the proportion of fine sediment from Corte Madera watershed accumulating in the marsh during the last 20 years when sediment inflows through the Delta have decreased to pre-disturbance levels. We conclude that a large, well-mixed reservoir, such as the transportable fine sediment pool in San Francisco Bay, is the primary source of sediment to Corte Madera Marsh, and this source buffers the marsh against changes in sediment supply from the Delta and local watersheds. This study also found that Corte Madera Marsh sediment between about 10-30 centimeters depth is highly contaminated with lead, likely a legacy of lead smelter operations near Carquinez Strait and leaded gasoline use.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Sediment geochemistry of Corte Madera Marsh, San Francisco Bay, California: have local inputs changed, 1830-2010?
U.S. Geological Survey
San Francisco Bay-Delta, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center