Turbidity plumes in Tampa Bay, Florida, produced during ship-channel dredging operations from February 1977 to August 1978, were monitored in order to document plume appearance and water quality, evaluate plume influence on the characteristics of Tampa Bay water, and provide a data base for comparison with other areas that have similar sediment, dredge, placement, containment, and tide conditions. The plumes investigated originated from the operation of one hopper dredge and three cutterhead-pipeline dredges.
Composition of bottom sediment was found to vary from 85 percent sand and shell fragments to 60 percent silt and clay. Placement methods for dredged sediment included beach nourishment, stationary submerged discharge, oscillating surface discharge, and construction of emergent dikes. Tidal currents ranged from slack water to flow velocities of 0.60 meter per second.
Plumes were monitored simultaneously by (1) oblique and vertical 35-millimeter aerial photography and (2) water-quality sampling to determine water clarity and concentrations of nutrients, metals, pesticides, and industrial compounds. Forty-nine photographs depict plumes ranging in length from a few tens of meters to several kilometers and ranging in turbidity level from <10 to 200,000 nephelometric turbidity units.
The most visible turbidity plumes were produced by surface discharge of material with high sand content into unconfined placement areas during times of strong tidal currents. The least visible turbidity plumes were produced by discharge of material with high silt and clay content into areas enclosed by floating turbidity barriers during times of weak tidal currents. Beach nourishment from hopper-dredge unloading operations also produced plumes of low visibility.
Primary turbidity plumes were produced directly by dredging and placement operations; secondary plumes were produced indirectly by resuspension of previously deposited material. Secondary plumes were formed both by erosion, in areas of high-velocity tidal currents, and by turbulence from vessels passing over fine material deposited in shallow areas.
Where turbidity barriers were not used, turbidity plumes visible at the surface were good indicators of the location of turbid water at depth. Where turbidity barriers were used, turbid bottom water was found at locations having no visible surface plumes.
A region of rapidly accelerating then decelerating flow near the mouth of Tampa Bay produced a two-part or separated plume. Flow acceleration contracted the width of the visible plume, and subsequent flow deceleration caused plume expansion. The two wide segments of the plume appeared to be separated from each other because of the intervening narrow part.
Waters ambient to the plumes were tested for clarity in two sections of Tampa Bay. Ambient-water transparency in Tampa Bay was about three times greater near its mouth, in South Tampa Bay, than near its head, in Hillsborough Bay. Two other measures of water clarity, turbidity and suspended solids, showed no statistically significant difference between the two areas, however, indicating that transparency is a more sensitive measure of ambient water clarity than either turbidity or suspended solids.
The nutrient and metal concentrations for samples of plume water and water ambient to the plumes in Tampa Bay were statistically equivalent, indicating no detectable changes due to dredging. The concentrations of dissolved copper, lead, mercury, and total mercury, however, were greater in plumes in Hillsborough Bay than in South Tampa Bay. In Hillsborough Bay, six occurrences of the herbicide 2,4-D at concentrations near the detection limit, 0.01 to 0.05 micrograms per liter, were unrelated to dredging activity.
Data recorded for longer than the study period indicate that from 1976 through 1979 few average turbidity characteristics in South Tampa and Hillsborough Bays can be directly attributed to dredging operation
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Appearance and water quality of turbidity plumes produced by dredging in Tampa Bay, Florida