The impact of the streamflow hydrograph on sediment supply from terrace erosion

John Lee Higson, Michael Bliss Singer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Sediment supply from banks and terraces has important implications for grain-size distributions in alluvial rivers (and by extension for aquatic habitat), as well as for the delivery of floodplain-stored nutrients and contaminants to the aquatic environment. The interactions between streamflow hydrographs and lateral channel boundary failure control the sediment supply from banks and terraces. However, the relationships between variable flow and discrete sediment supply from catastrophic erosion of lateral boundaries and subsequent mass sediment flux in rivers are not well characterised by existing methods and models that focus only on one of several relevant interrelated processes. In order to improve predictive capability of catastrophic sediment supply from lateral boundaries, we adopt a new approach to modelling the process interactions between stream hydrology, erosion of banks/terraces, and the corresponding discrete supply of sediment to channels. We develop a modelling framework for terrace –-channel coupling that combines existing theories of flow through porous media, bank stability, and fractional sediment flux. We demonstrate the utility of this modelling approach by assessing hydrologically driven erosion, evolution of grain size in the channel, and fine sediment flux from a study site along the Yuba River in California over individual flood hydrographs and over decadal historical flow series. We quantify the supply of sediment eroded from a contaminated nineteenth century fan terrace of hydraulic gold mining tailingsintersecting the Yuba and find that a threshold for erosion exists at a stage in the channel in excess of 8 m and that threshold can produce episodic sediment concentrations in excess of ~ 300 mg L− 1. The modelling produced erosion and fine sediment pulses from each of three major floods in the past several decades until the flow velocity drops below 500 m s− 1 when a bed armor layer forms, while no sediment was generated from the terrace during smaller floods. We further assess the impact on terrace erosion of various river management scenarios with distinct hydrograph shapes and find increased erosion potential when the terrace contains antecedent moisture or the flood time series is run over an extended duration. Sensitivity analysis demonstrated that elevated antecedent moisture within the lateral boundary and increased hydrograph rising time each reduce bank stability and thus increase volumes of failed material. We also find that fluctuations in the hydrograph typically associated with hydroelectricity generation result in a more stable terrace than those of a longer duration because there is less time for hyporheic stream water to infiltrate the lateral boundary. This study demonstrates that changes in hydrograph shape as a consequence of climatic forcing or anthropogenic dam releases may have considerable impacts upon sediment delivery and associated contaminants from banks and terraces to the downstream environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)475-488
Early online date29 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2015


  • Bank stability
  • Hyporheic
  • Legacy sediment
  • Yuba River
  • Gold Rush
  • Mercury contamination


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