Past, Present, and Future of Sediment Research in the U.S. Geological Survey

Robert H. Meade,
U.S. Geological Survey
Water Resources Division
Denver, Colorado 80225


The history of sediment research in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began during the early years of our century with Grove Karl Gilbert. Gilbert's monumental work on the hydraulic-mining debris in the Sacramento River system established precedents of scientific, quality and topical relevance that, when followed by succeeding generations, have always strengthened the USGS as a provider of earth science in the public service. At the same time, R. B. Dole, Herman Stabler and others were establishing the importance of suspended sediment as a water-quality parameter on a par with total dissolved solids and the major ions. Their work epitomized (if it did not originate) another lasting approach to water quality in the USGS, namely: publish the complete data along with detailed descriptions of methods and honest discussions of errors. So while Gilbert was providing a supreme example of world-class research on a real-world problem, Dole and Stabler were setting the standards for reporting and managing the essential data.

During the first few years following World War II, sediment research grew exponentially under the sponsor ship of, and in collaboration with, the Atomic Energy Commission, Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Reclamation. In the Water Resources Division, large programs centered on sedimentation in reservoirs and transport of radionuclides. In the Geologic Division, emphasis was on ancient sediments as host rocks for oil and gas, coal, and uranium. Special topics needing individualized research were pursued only in the contexts of the larger issues. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, a major new approach, that of curiosity-driven research, was instituted under the charismatic leadership of Luna Leopold.

The present state of sediment research, in the Water Resources Division at least, is out of focus. No central unifying thread runs through the program. Individual researchers pursue individual goals without much exploration or exploitation of potential common ground between projects or, even less, between disciplines. To use an operatic analogy, sediment research is presently in a "three-tenors" mode that stresses (and rewards) highly individualized feats of virtuosity. More emphasis needs to be placed on a "Marriage-of- Figaro" mode in which the ensemble, while requiring world-class individual performers, is greater than the sum of its parts.

For the near future, two large issues around which sediment research can be focused are (1) the role of sediment in the transport and sequestering of adsorbed contaminants, and (2) the role of sedimentary processes inthe construction, preservation, and destruction of habitats. These concerns certainly are not new to the USGS, but their effective pursuit into the future requires large shifts, both institutional and individual. First, sediment researchers need to break the mold of one-investigator-one-project and aggressively seek, or at least openly welcome, opportunities to work more intimately with chemists, biologists, and others. Second, researchers need to admit to themselves that most of the sediment involved in the transport of contaminants and the construction of habitats is fine grained and might be approached from premises other than the certainties of Newtonian physics. Switching emphasis from sands and gravels to finer sediment requires at least a partial shift from left-brain approaches (physics of fluid forces on solid particles) to more right-brain approaches (spatial mapping, remote sensing, classic G.K. Gilbert-style geomorphology). The integration of the Biological Resources Division into USGS provides opportunities to get on with some of these changes, but, in the final analysis, the best solution may be radical brain surgery.

Workshop Proceedings
Contributions from Other Federal Agencies
Contribution from the USGS