Sediment Lithology and Borehole Erosion Testing, American and Sacramento Rivers, California

Scientific Investigations Report 2020-5063
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
By:  and 

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Executive Summary

A field investigation intended to measure the potential for erosion of sediments beside the American and Sacramento Rivers near Sacramento, California, is described. The study featured two primary components: (1) drilling and soil sampling to reveal lithology, down to depths matching the local river thalweg, where possible, and (2) borehole erosion tests (BETs) as described by Briaud and others (2017) at many of the same locations. The latter test involved drilling a vertical hole, measuring its diameter profile, inserting a hollow drilling rod to almost the bottom of the hole, and pumping fluid through the drilling rod at a known discharge for a chosen time interval. The hole was then resurveyed to establish an erosion rate (change in borehole radius divided by duration of flow event) as a function of depth, and the test was repeated. This test was performed with water as the erosive fluid at 12 locations, with 1 test repeated with drilling mud. Lithology holes were drilled at these same locations and an additional five locations. Drilling operations took place on river left and river right on the American River and river left (left bank, when looking downstream) on the Sacramento River.

The drilling to acquire sediment samples and reveal lithology involved the use of a mobile drilling rig equipped with a 6-inch (in.) auger, a 140-pound pneumatic hammer to drive split spoon and Calmod samplers, and a piston to push Shelby tube samplers to obtain samples of clayey material. Blow count (hammer blows per 6-in. sampler advance) was recorded while sampling, and the process was logged using standard U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Sacramento District procedures. Sediment samples were identified and described in the field per ASTM D2488 and then delivered to a USACE laboratory and to Texas A&M University for additional laboratory analysis.

The BETs were performed with the same drilling rig that performed the drilling for definition of lithology. In most instances, tests were limited to regions above the water table, to avoid slumping of the borehole and heaving sands pushing into the hole. Most of the tests featured sediments that were primarily silty sand or sandy silt.

The testing procedure involved comparing borehole profiles before and after passing an assumed constant discharge through a drilling rod to the bottom of the drilled hole. Discharge and water losses were logged during the testing procedure, and water losses into the walls of the drilled hole were typically less than 5 percent of the introduced volume. For the tests performed with water, the coefficient of variation of the discharge ranged from 4.5 to 28 percent, with a mean of 13 percent, but the mean discharge appeared to be reasonably steady over the typical test duration of 10–30 minutes. It was thus assumed that discharge was constant and water losses during the tests were neglected. Coefficients of variation of the discharge for the three tests performed with drilling mud were much higher (20–50 percent), but erosion rates were much smaller.

Resolution of the borehole caliper-reported diameter was 0.1 in. and several of the tests lasted for 10 minutes. With boreholes measured twice, before and after each test, and averaged, these numbers correspond to an apparent erosion rate (radius change divided by test duration) of 0.3 inches per hour (in/hr), which is a theoretical lower bound on what could be measured with this approach and equipment. In practice, 0.5 in/hr appears to be a more realistic lower bound on the detectable erosion rate, based on inspection of computed changes and erosion rates.

Three flow speeds (5, 8, and 12 feet per second; ft/s) were targeted for the tests. Because of equipment limitations, it was not possible in the field to reach an average of 12 ft/s throughout any given borehole, although much higher flow speeds were reached locally in some cases. Most tests featured at least two different flow rates, and the borehole was typically surveyed at least twice for each condition, to allow averaging to reduce the influence of random diameter measurement errors. Errors arising from out-of-round boreholes appeared to be uncommon.

Briaud and others (2017) recommend stepped increases in the flow rate during a borehole test. This approach was taken during initial testing but proved to be problematic. The drilled hole would be enlarged by the first (smaller) discharge, and then it would be difficult to reach the desired higher flow speed because of the larger annulus between the drilled hole and the drilling rod that supplied the water for testing. This was largely solved by starting with a high discharge and, in many cases, maintaining it for subsequent tests with the average flow speed decreasing as the hole enlarged.

Several different measures of erosion rate were computed and investigated by comparison to lithological profiles. The vertically averaged erosion rate for each hole was computed, but this result does not reveal vertical variability of erodibility; and the mean flow speed within the hole is not a good representation of the speed when attempting to determine a relationship between erosion rate and flow speed. Instead, for each 6-inch layer within the hole, vertically averaged erosion rates and local flow speeds were computed and plotted. Where possible, the soil type for each layer was identified. For later laboratory analysis, project protocol dictated collection of Shelby tube samples whenever clay was encountered.

Plots of erosion rate versus flow speed displayed scatter that indicate that several other factors influence the erosion potential of the soil. Blow count was not a good predictor variable; it is better correlated with soil type than erodibility.

Soils were classified as sand, silt, or clay, depending on which soil type dominated within a sample. In general, those classified as sand and silt did not reveal clear patterns allowing erosion rate to be computed directly from flow speed, but the test results define the range and bounds on the erosion rate. Results for clay were slightly clearer with the erosion rate increasing with flow speed, once a threshold had been reached. In this case, the erosion rate appeared to change near a speed of 7 ft/s; above this threshold, erosion rates jumped from less than 2 in/hr to greater than 3 in/hr.

Even for soils with similar classifications, large differences in erodibility were observed between sites and in different layers within an individual hole. One potential means of dealing with this problem would be to perform more tests at each site to allow establishment of relationships between flow speed and erodibility for individual layers within a borehole. The maximum number of tests performed at a site in this study was four, but in some cases, results are available for only one or two flow events. Comparison of data to a set of Erosion Function Apparatus tests that provide better resolution of the vertical variation in the erosion rate versus flow speed relationship would allow further investigation of this idea.

It was hypothesized that drilling mud could expand the utility of the test in soft sands by reducing the likelihood of slumping that would be interpreted as erosion. The one test that was performed with drilling mud indicated that it greatly reduced the erosion rate of the soils encountered. It yielded very different results from the test performed at the same site with water.

Erosion rate is often expressed as a function of shear stress applied to a soil. In order to compute shear stress on the walls of the drilled hole, one must assume a form for the relationship between flow speed and shear stress and select a friction factor that is often estimated empirically from head loss, observed water-surface profiles, surface roughness, or other data not available in this report. One methodology for computing shear stress from flow speed is discussed in this report, but the test results have been presented in terms of erosion rate versus flow speed to avoid assuming values that are not verifiable via the field data collected in this study. Erosion rate was computed from directly measured values (sequential borehole profiles) and flow speed was computed directly from measured quantities (discharge and borehole geometry).

The BET has seen limited application, primarily in clayey soils, whereas most of the soils encountered in this study were primarily sand or silt. The objective of the BET is to determine the erodibility of in situ soil below the ground or riverbed surface. The BET is simple in principle and has the advantage of revealing erodibility of in situ sediments below the ground or riverbed surface; it appears to be very useful in clayey soils, based on previously published work, but is more difficult to apply in sandy soils where slumping and water losses within the hole during testing are more likely to occur. The BET did reveal a large variation in the results both laterally and vertically, even for the same soil-type classification. It is thus recommended that the results be applied considering these spatial variations rather than attempting to universally assign an erosion-rate relationship to a particular soil type. Results have been provided showing the results by site and by sediment classification (sand, silt, and clay), to allow either approach. Where possible, it is important to rely on site-specific results because the erosion-rate relationship for a given soil type varied by site.

Data collected during this project have been made publicly available online via the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Sciencebase database. The measured borehole profiles, discharge, lithology log sheets, and photos are available in the data release that accompanies this report (see Work and Livsey (2019) in the “Selected References” section for the appropriate link).

Suggested Citation

Work, P., and Livsey, D., 2020, Sediment lithology and borehole erosion testing, American and Sacramento Rivers, California: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2020–5063, 92 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20205063.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Site Conditions and Drilling Plan
  • Augering and Sediment Sampling Procedure
  • Borehole Erosion Test Procedure
  • Borehole Erosion Test Results
  • Conclusions
  • Selected References
  • Appendix 1. Individual Borehole Erosion Test Plots and Notes
  • Appendix 2. Flowmeter and Water Level Logging

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Sediment lithology and borehole erosion testing, American and Sacramento Rivers, California
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2020-5063
DOI 10.3133/sir20205063
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center
Description Report: vii, 92 p.; Data Release
Country United States
State California
City Sacramento
Other Geospatial American River, Sacramento Rivers
Online Only (Y/N) Y
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