Evaluation of streambed scour at bridges over tidal waterways in Alaska

Scientific Investigations Report 2012-5245
Prepared in cooperation with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities
By:  and 



The potential for streambed scour was evaluated at 41 bridges that cross tidal waterways in Alaska. These bridges are subject to several coastal and riverine processes that have the potential, individually or in combination, to induce streambed scour or to damage the structure or adjacent channel. The proximity of a bridge to the ocean and water-surface elevation and velocity data collected over a tidal cycle were criteria used to identify the flow regime at each bridge, whether tidal, riverine, or mixed, that had the greatest potential to induce streambed scour. Water-surface elevations measured through at least one tide cycle at 32 bridges were correlated to water levels at the nearest tide station. Asymmetry of the tidal portion of the hydrograph during the outgoing tide at 12 bridges indicated that riverine flows were stored upstream of the bridge during the tidal exchange. This scenario results in greater discharges and velocities during the outgoing tide compared to those on the incoming tide. Velocity data were collected during outgoing tides at 10 bridges that experienced complete flow reversals, and measured velocities during the outgoing tide exceeded the critical velocity required to initiate sediment transport at three sites. The primary risk for streambed scour at most of the sites considered in this study is from riverine flows rather than tidal fluctuations. A scour evaluation for riverine flow was completed at 35 bridges. Scour from riverine flow was not the primary risk for six tidally-controlled bridges and therefore not evaluated at those sites. Field data including channel cross sections, a discharge measurement, and a water-surface slope were collected at the 35 bridges. Channel instability was identified at 14 bridges where measurable scour and or fill were noted in repeated surveys of channel cross sections at the bridge. Water-surface profiles for the 1-percent annual exceedance probability discharge were calculated by using the Hydrologic Engineering Center’s River Analysis System model, and scour depths were calculated using methods recommended by the Federal Highway Administration. Computed contraction-scour depths were greater than 2.0 feet at five bridges and computed pier-scour depths were 4.0 feet or greater at 15 bridges. The potential for streambed scour by both coastal and riverine processes at the bridges considered in this study were evaluated, ranked, and summed to determine a cumulative risk factor for each bridge. Possible factors that could mitigate the scour risks were investigated at 22 bridges that had high individual or cumulative rankings. Mitigating factors such as piers founded in bedrock, deep pier foundations relative to scour depths, and lack of observed scour during field measurements were documented for 13 sites, but additional study and monitoring is needed to better quantify the streambed scour potential for nine sites. Three bridges prone to being affected by storm surges will require more data collection and possibly complex hydrodynamic modeling to accurately quantify the streambed scour potential. Continuous monitoring of water-surface and streambed elevation at one or more piers is needed for two bridges to better understand the tidal and riverine influences on streambed scour.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Evaluation of streambed scour at bridges over tidal waterways in Alaska
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2012-5245
DOI 10.3133/sir20125245
Year Published 2012
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center
Description Report: vi, 38 p.; Appendixes A and B
Country United States
State Alaska
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
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