Elevated levels of fluvial sediment can reduce the biological productivity of aquatic systems, impair freshwater quality, decrease reservoir storage capacity, and decrease the capacity of hydraulic structures. The need to measure fluvial sediment has led to the development of sediment surrogate technologies, particularly in locations where streamflow alone is not a good estimator of sediment load because of regulated flow, load hysteresis, episodic sediment sources, and non-equilibrium sediment transport. An effective surrogate technology is low maintenance and sturdy over a range of hydrologic conditions, and measured variables can be modeled to estimate suspended-sediment concentration (SSC), load, and duration of elevated levels on a real-time basis. Among the most promising techniques is the measurement of acoustic backscatter strength using acoustic Doppler velocity meters (ADVMs) deployed in rivers. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla District, evaluated the use of acoustic backscatter, turbidity, laser diffraction, and streamflow as surrogates for estimating real-time SSC and loads in the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, which adjoin in Lewiston, Idaho, and flow into Lower Granite Reservoir. The study was conducted from May 2008 to September 2010 and is part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lower Snake River Programmatic Sediment Management Plan to identify and manage sediment sources in basins draining into lower Snake River reservoirs.
Commercially available acoustic instruments have shown great promise in sediment surrogate studies because they require little maintenance and measure profiles of the surrogate parameter across a sampling volume rather than at a single point. The strength of acoustic backscatter theoretically increases as more particles are suspended in the water to reflect the acoustic pulse emitted by the ADVM. ADVMs of different frequencies (0.5, 1.5, and 3 Megahertz) were tested to target various sediment grain sizes. Laser diffraction and turbidity also were tested as surrogate technologies. Models between SSC and surrogate variables were developed using ordinary least-squares regression. Acoustic backscatter using the high frequency ADVM at each site was the best predictor of sediment, explaining 93 and 92 percent of the variability in SSC and matching sediment sample data within +8.6 and +10 percent, on average, at the Clearwater River and Snake River study sites, respectively. Additional surrogate models were developed to estimate sand and fines fractions of suspended sediment based on acoustic backscatter. Acoustic backscatter generally appears to be a better estimator of suspended sediment concentration and load over short (storm event and monthly) and long (annual) time scales than transport curves derived solely from the regression of conventional sediment measurements and streamflow. Changing grain sizes, the presence of organic matter, and aggregation of sediments in the river likely introduce some variability in the model between acoustic backscatter and SSC.