Proceedings of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Sediment Workshop,
February 4-7, 1997
SEDIMENT RESEARCH AT THE REDWOOD FIELD
Mary Ann Madej,
California Science Center (CSC)
The California Science Center of the USGS-BRD conducts research programs involving fish,
wildlife, and landscape dynamics in various field stations throughout the state. The Center's
program develops strategies to assess the status and trends of biota and to predict the ecological
consequences of management actions. The Redwood Field Station focuses on geologic research
necessary to ensure effective land management of steep, forested landscapes that have been or will
be logged, grazed, mined or developed. Specific objectives include an understanding of erosion
and sedimentation processes in highly unstable terrain, as well as human influences upon those
processes. The research program encompasses the general areas of hillslope and fluvial
geomorphology, restoration of disturbed lands, and the impacts of erosion and sedimentation on
river channels, over a broad range of spatial and temporal scales. Studies are designed to
determine how changing land use patterns affect the rates and distribution of erosional processes,
how damages resulting from land use modifications can be reversed or ameliorated, and how
riparian and aquatic habitats are influenced by geomorphic controls. Sediment dynamics play a
pivotal role in these research projects. The major issues involving sediment studies are as follows:
Effects of In-stream Gravel Extraction
Extraction of in-stream gravel is a major industry in California, and such mining operations
threaten bank stability and aquatic habitat in many rivers in California, Oregon and Washington.
Monitoring of gravel transport and post-mining alterations is done in conjunction with fisheries
biologists to assess the effects of gravel extraction on the distribution of suitable spawning and
rearing habitat in the rivers and on riparian vegetation. Research is needed to help predict the
quantity and timing of gravel recruitment in a given river reach, the effects of gravel mining on
channel morphology, and the recovery processes in rivers after mining. Two major questions to
be answered by this research are: How much gravel can be extracted without causing serious
channel modifications, and what method of extraction is least damaging to aquatic
Propagation and Migration of Sediment Waves
Sediment waves are large pulses of bedload movement in rivers. They are of interest in many
mountainous areas because of the threat they pose to human development, flood protection,
reservoir capacity and--in the case of Redwood National Park--to old-growth redwood groves
growing along Redwood Creek. Fisheries biologists are interested in how such waves affect pool
depths and frequencies, and the subsequent impact on fish populations. Long-term monitoring of
cross-channel and longitudinal transects can document the movement of such
Redwood Field Station is using field data from Redwood Creek as a basis for modeling how
sediment waves form, their rate of movement, controls on transport rates and the morphologic
changes associated with wave propagation and migration.
The Role of Channel-Stored Sediment in Sediment Transport
Sediment yields are commonly used to gage the effects of land use changes on sediment
production; however if sediment is stored temporarily in a stream channel or its floodplains, the
sediment yields measured at the mouth of a river may not reflect the increased erosion rates
upstream. Alternatively, as sediment is eroded from in-channel storage sites, sediment yields may
increase. Significant increases in the amounts of sediment in storage can lead to complex changes
in fluvial landforms, which can subsequently change patterns of sediment transport. The
frequency of sediment movement and distance moved depend not only on the particle size of
sediment, but also on the location of sediment within the channel. An unvegetated gravel bar
represents a much more mobile storage feature than a forested floodplain, for example. This
research focuses on quantifying changes in channel-stored sediment throughout a river network
and modeling the residence times of sediment stored in different geomorphic units ranging from
active gravel bars to floodplains. Results of sediment storage research have implications for
contaminant studies as well. For example, the residence times of metal-contaminated mine
tailings in temporary channel storage may be of concern to local and downstream communities.
Analysis of Historical River Channel Changes
It is frequently difficult to separate 'natural' processes, such as bank erosion along a meandering
river, from man-induced erosion. Land managers need to know in what state the rivers once
existed in order to guide their efforts in restoring damaged streams. Present day variability in
sediment production, storage and transport needs to be viewed within a long-term, basin-wide
perspective. We need to extend our knowledge of local processes and responses to broader
temporal and spatial scales. Extending a monitoring record by examining historical records and
analyzing stratigraphic evidence is one way of determining the magnitude and type of past
changes, before extensive manmade manipulations occurred. The examination of historical maps
and archival material, climatic records, aerial photographs and soil cores can help in formulating
the history of channel changes. Flood frequency and associated floodplain sedimentation can be
compared before and after the advent of widespread timber harvest and other land use
disturbances. The thickness and size distribution of recent flood deposits and locations of
deposition can be compared to deposits which predate watershed disturbances. In response to
concerns of land managers, the present research efforts have focused on reconstructing the history
of floodplain development in the Merced River, Yosemite Valley, and in Redwood Creek,
Changes in the Size Distribution of River Bed Substrate
Salmon and other aquatic organisms are sensitive to the size distribution of river bed substrate.
Adequate gravels with a minimum amount of silt are needed for successful spawning and
providing habitat for invertebrates. Land use changes in watersheds (timber harvest, dam
construction and operation, highway construction, fire) frequently cause changes in the size
distribution of river bed substrate and the degree of armoring in gravel bed rivers. In large part the
size of the armor layer controls the initiation of sediment transport and gravel
bar mobility. It also
affects how easily spawning salmon can build redds. Flume studies have been useful, but are
limited in scope, and field work in natural rivers is needed to supplement laboratory experiments.
The spatial variability of streambed armoring is high, and for example, the streamwise sorting of
bed particles during recessional flows can affect size-selectivity in bedload transport during
subsequent rising stages. Research at the Redwood Field Station addresses the role of non
uniformity and unsteadiness of flow in natural river channels and its influence on channel
armoring and fine sediment deposition in coarse gravel-bedded rivers. Also, the relationship of
scour depth in coarse gravel-bedded rivers and stream discharge at typical salmon redd locations is
being explored. These research topics are examples of how sediment studies can provide useful
information to aquatic ecologists.
Restoration of Disturbed Hillslopes and River Channels
Since 1978, Redwood National Park has conducted watershed restoration work on hillslopes and
in channels damaged by past logging activities. The focus of the rehabilitation work has been to
reduce sediment inputs into perennial stream channels. The President's Northwest Forest
Management Plan calls for extensive watershed restoration work of this type on forested lands
throughout the Pacific Northwest, and much restoration work is currently being conducted on
federal lands in the western United States. Researchers at the Redwood Field Station evaluate the
effectiveness of terrestrial restoration work on improving aquatic habitat. The basic question is one
of sediment routing--by what processes and at what rates do fine and coarse sediments get
transferred from abandoned logging roads into low-order channels and subsequently into high
order channels and into estuaries, lakes, and oceans? How do changes in sediment flux affect
channel morphology? And what role should in-stream structures have in this restoration effort?
Predicting sediment flux in mountain watersheds is problematic because standard entrainment and
transport equations were not developed for these conditions (steep channels, boulder and cobble
beds, and large woody debris in channels). The present studies integrate the topics of sediment
production, transport and storage, and are necessary to understand the linkage between land use
and channel ecology.
Mary Ann Madej is presently a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Biological Resources
Division, California Science Center, at the Redwood Field Station in Arcata, California. She
received her Bachelors degree (1975) in geology from Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, and her
Masters degree (1978) from the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. She is
presently a Ph.D. candidate at Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon. Since 1978, her
research has focused on studying the effects of erosion and sedimentation on the landscapes and
ecosystems of steep, forested watersheds in the western United States. Her geomorphic studies
cover a range of habitats: rivers, estuaries, lagoons, riparian zones, wetlands, coastlines, coniferous
forests, oak-woodlands and grasslands. She has been invited to present her research results at
several international meetings, in Italy, New Zealand, Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom.
She cooperates frequently with scientists and resource managers in many national parks,
universities, the U.S. Forest Service, and state agencies.
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International Association of Hydrological Sciences Publication Number 132. Washington,
Contributions from Other Federal Agencies
Contribution from the USGS