The shoreline of the tidal Potomac River attained its present form as a result of the Holocene episode of sea-level rise; the drowned margins of the system are modified by wave activity in the shore zone and by slope processes on banks steepened by basal-wave erosion. Shore erosion leaves residual sand and gravel in shallow water and transports silt and clay offshore to form a measurable component of the suspended-sediment load of the tidal Potomac River.
Erosion rates were measured by comparing digitized historical shoreline maps and modern maps, and by comparing stereopairs of aerial photographs taken at different points in time, with the aid of an interactive computer-graphics system and a digitizing stereoplotter. Cartographic comparisons encompassed 90 percent of the study reach and spanned periods of 38 to 109 years, with most measurements spanning at least 84 years. Photogrammetric comparisons encompassed 49 percent of the study reach and spanned 16 to 40 years. Field monitoring of erosion rates and processes at two sites, Swan Point Neck, Maryland, and Mason Neck, Virginia, spanned periods of 10 to 18 months.
Estimated average recession rates of shoreline in the estuary, based on cartographic and photogrammetric measurements, were 0.42 to 0.52 meter per annum (Virginia shore) and 0.31 to 0.41 meter per annum (Maryland shore). Average recession rates of shoreline in the tidal river and transition zone were close to 0.15 meter per annum. Estimated average volume-erosion rates along the estuary were 1.20 to 1.87 cubic meters per meter of shoreline per annum (Virginia shore) and 0.56 to 0.73 cubic meter per meter of shoreline per annum (Maryland shore); estimated average volume-erosion rates along the shores of the tidal river and transition zone were 0.55 to 0.74 cubic meter per meter of shoreline per annum.
Estimated total sediment contributed to the tidal Potomac River by shore erosion was 0.375 x 10 6 to 0.565 x 10 6 metric tons per annum; of this, the estimated amount of silt and clay ranged from 0.153x10 6 to 0.226x10 6 metric tons per annum. Between 49 and 60 percent of the sediment was derived from the Virginia shore of the estuary; 14 to 18 percent was derived from the Maryland shore of the estuary; and 23 to 36 percent was derived from the shores of the tidal river and transition zone. The adjusted modern estimate of sediment eroded from the shoreline of the estuary is about 55 percent of the historical estimate.
Sediment eroded from the shoreline accounted for about 6 to 9 percent of the estimated total suspended load for the tidal Potomac River during water years 1979 through 1981 and for about 11 to 18 percent of the suspended load delivered to the estuary during the same period. Annual suspended-sediment loads derived from upland source areas fluctuated by about an order of magnitude during the 3 years of record (1979-81); shore erosion may have been a more important component of the sediment budget during periods of low flow than during periods of higher discharges. Prior to massive land clearance during the historical period of intensive agriculture in the 18th and 19th centuries, annual sediment loads from upland sources probably were smaller than they are at present; under these circumstances shore erosion would have been an important component of the sediment budget.
At current rates of sediment supply, relative sea-level rise, and shoreline recession, the landward parts of the tidal Potomac River are rapidly being filled by sediment. If these rates were to remain constant over time, and no sediment were to escape into Chesapeake Bay, the tidal river and transition zone would be filled within 600 years, and the total system would be filled in less than 4,000 years. Given a slower rate of sediment supply, comparable to the measured rate during the low-flow 1981 water year, the volume of the tidal Potomac River might remain relatively stable or even increase over time. Changes in rates
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USGS Numbered Series
Shore erosion as a sediment source to the tidal Potomac River, Maryland and Virginia