Sedimentation is an ongoing maintenance problem for reservoirs, limiting reservoir storage capacity and navigation. Because Lower Granite Reservoir in Washington is the most upstream of the four U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs on the lower Snake River, it receives and retains the largest amount of sediment. In 2008, in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey began a study to quantify sediment transport to Lower Granite Reservoir. Samples of suspended sediment and bedload were collected from streamgaging stations on the Snake River near Anatone, Washington, and the Clearwater River at Spalding, Idaho. Both streamgages were equipped with an acoustic Doppler velocity meter to evaluate the efficacy of acoustic backscatter for estimating suspended-sediment concentrations and transport. In 2009, sediment sampling was extended to 10 additional locations in tributary watersheds to help identify the dominant source areas for sediment delivery to Lower Granite Reservoir. Suspended-sediment samples were collected 9–15 times per year at each location to encompass a range of streamflow conditions and to capture significant hydrologic events such as peak snowmelt runoff and rain-on-snow. Bedload samples were collected at a subset of stations where the stream conditions were conducive for sampling, and when streamflow was sufficiently high for bedload transport. At most sampling locations, the concentration of suspended sediment varied by 3–5 orders of magnitude with concentrations directly correlated to streamflow. The largest median concentrations of suspended sediment (100 and 94 mg/L) were in samples collected from stations on the Palouse River at Hooper, Washington, and the Salmon River at White Bird, Idaho, respectively. The smallest median concentrations were in samples collected from the Selway River near Lowell, Idaho (11 mg/L), the Lochsa River near Lowell, Idaho (11 mg/L), the Clearwater River at Orofino, Idaho (13 mg/L), and the Middle Fork Clearwater River at Kooskia, Idaho (15 mg/L). The largest measured concentrations of suspended sediment (3,300 and 1,400 mg/L) during a rain-on-snow event in January 2011 were from samples collected at the Potlatch River near Spalding, Idaho, and the Palouse River at Hooper, Washington, respectively. Generally, samples collected from agricultural watersheds had a high percentage of silt and clay-sized suspended sediment, whereas samples collected from forested watersheds had a high percentage of sand. During water years 2009–11, Lower Granite Reservoir received about 10 million tons of suspended sediment from the combined loads of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. The Snake River accounted for about 2.97 million tons per year (about 89 percent) of the total suspended sediment, 1.48 million tons per year (about 90 percent) of the suspended sand, and about 1.52 million tons per year (87 percent) of the suspended silt and clay. Of the suspended sediment transported to Lower Granite Reservoir, the Salmon River accounted for about 51 percent of the total suspended sediment, about 56 percent of the suspended sand, and about 44 percent of the suspended silt and clay. About 6.2 million tons (62 percent) of the sediment contributed to Lower Granite Reservoir during 2009–11 entered during water year 2011, which was characterized by an above average winter snowpack and sustained spring runoff. A comparison of historical data collected from the Snake River near Anatone with data collected during this study indicates that concentrations of total suspended sediment and suspended sand in the Snake River were significantly smaller during water years 1972–79 than during 2008–11. Most of the increased sediment content in the Snake River is attributable to an increase of sand-size material. During 1972–79, sand accounted for an average of 28 percent of the suspended-sediment load; during 2008–11, sand accounted for an average of 48 percent. Historical data from the Clearwater River at Spalding indicates that the concentrations of total suspended sediment collected during 1972–79 were not significantly different from the concentrations measured during this study. However, the suspended-sand concentrations in the Clearwater River were significantly smaller during 1972–79 than during 2008–11. The increase in suspended-sand concentrations in the Snake and Clearwater Rivers are probably attributable to numerous severe forest fires that burned large areas of central Idaho from 1980–2010. Acoustic backscatter from an acoustic Doppler velocity meter proved to be an effective method of estimating suspended-sediment concentration and load for most streamflow conditions in the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. Models based on acoustic backscatter were able to simulate most of the variability in suspended-sediment concentrations in the Clearwater River at Spalding (coefficient of determination [R2]=0.93) and the Snake River near Anatone (R2=0.92). Acoustic backscatter seems to be especially effective for estimating suspended-sediment concentration and load over short (monthly and single storm event) and long (annual) time scales when sediment load is highly variable. However, during high streamflow events acoustic surrogate tools may be unable to capture the contribution of suspended sand moving near the bottom of the water column and thus, underestimate the total load of suspended sediment. At the stations where bedload was collected, the particle-size distribution at low streamflows typically was unimodal with sand comprising the dominant particle size. At higher streamflows and during peak bedload discharge, the particle size typically was bimodal and was comprised primarily of sand and coarse gravel. About 55,000 tons of bedload was discharged from the Snake River to Lower Granite Reservoir during water years 2009–11, about 0.62 percent of the total sediment load delivered by the Snake River. About 9,500 tons of bedload was discharged from the Clearwater River to Lower Granite Reservoir during 2009–11, about 0.83 percent of the total sediment load discharged by the Clearwater River during 2009–11.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Sediment transport in the lower Snake and Clearwater River Basins, Idaho and Washington, 2008–11