A Comparison of Turbidity-Based and Streamflow-Based Estimates of Suspended-Sediment Concentrations in Three Chesapeake Bay Tributaries

Scientific Investigations Report 2009-5165
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Chesapeake Bay Program and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
By: , and 



Fluvial transport of sediment into the Chesapeake Bay estuary is a persistent water-quality issue with major implications for the overall health of the bay ecosystem. Accurately and precisely estimating the suspended-sediment concentrations (SSC) and loads that are delivered to the bay, however, remains challenging. Although manual sampling of SSC produces an accurate series of point-in-time measurements, robust extrapolation to unmeasured periods (especially highflow periods) has proven to be difficult. Sediment concentrations typically have been estimated using regression relations between individual SSC values and associated streamflow values; however, suspended-sediment transport during storm events is extremely variable, and it is often difficult to relate a unique SSC to a given streamflow. With this limitation for estimating SSC, innovative approaches for generating detailed records of suspended-sediment transport are needed. One effective method for improved suspended-sediment determination involves the continuous monitoring of turbidity as a surrogate for SSC. Turbidity measurements are theoretically well correlated to SSC because turbidity represents a measure of water clarity that is directly influenced by suspended sediments; thus, turbidity-based estimation models typically are effective tools for generating SSC data. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Chesapeake Bay Program and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, initiated continuous turbidity monitoring on three major tributaries of the bay - the James, Rappahannock, and North Fork Shenandoah Rivers - to evaluate the use of turbidity as a sediment surrogate in rivers that deliver sediment to the bay. Results of this surrogate approach were compared to the traditionally applied streamflow-based approach for estimating SSC. Additionally, evaluation and comparison of these two approaches were conducted for nutrient estimations. Results demonstrate that the application of turbidity-based estimation models provides an improved method for generating a continuous record of SSC, relative to the classical approach that uses streamflow as a surrogate for SSC. Turbidity-based estimates of SSC were found to be more accurate and precise than SSC estimates from streamflow-based approaches. The turbidity-based SSC estimation models explained 92 to 98 percent of the variability in SSC, while streamflow-based models explained 74 to 88 percent of the variability in SSC. Furthermore, the mean absolute error of turbidity-based SSC estimates was 50 to 87 percent less than the corresponding values from the streamflow-based models. Statistically significant differences were detected between the distributions of residual errors and estimates from the two approaches, indicating that the turbidity-based approach yields estimates of SSC with greater precision than the streamflow-based approach. Similar improvements were identified for turbidity-based estimates of total phosphorus, which is strongly related to turbidity because total phosphorus occurs predominantly in particulate form. Total nitrogen estimation models based on turbidity and streamflow generated estimates of similar quality, with the turbidity-based models providing slight improvements in the quality of estimations. This result is attributed to the understanding that nitrogen transport is dominated by dissolved forms that relate less directly to streamflow and turbidity. Improvements in concentration estimation resulted in improved estimates of load. Turbidity-based suspended-sediment loads estimated for the James River at Cartersville, VA, monitoring station exhibited tighter confidence interval bounds and a coefficient of variation of 12 percent, compared with a coefficient of variation of 38 percent for the streamflow-based load.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title A Comparison of Turbidity-Based and Streamflow-Based Estimates of Suspended-Sediment Concentrations in Three Chesapeake Bay Tributaries
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2009-5165
ISBN 9781411326057
DOI 10.3133/sir20095165
Edition -
Year Published 2009
Language ENGLISH
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s) Virginia Water Science Center
Description vi, 39 p.
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