Sediment routing through channel confluences: RFID tracer experiments from a gravel-bed river headwaters

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Kurt Imhoff, University of Montana, Missoula, MT, United States and Andrew C Wilcox, University of Montana, Geosciences, Missoula, MT, United States
Tributary confluences may significantly impact large-scale patterns of sediment transport because of their role in connecting individual streams in a network. These unique locations feature complex flow structures and geomorphic features, and may represent ecological hotspots. Sediment transport across confluences is poorly understood, however. We present research on coarse sediment transport and dispersion through confluences using sediment tracers in the East Fork Bitterroot River, Montana, USA. We tagged a range of gravel (>40 mm) and cobble particles with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags and painted smaller (10–40 mm) gravels, and then we traced them through confluences in a montane river’s headwaters. We measured the effects of confluences on dispersion, path length, and depositional location and compare properties of sediment routing with a non-confluence control reach. We also measured topographic change through repeat bed surveys and combined topography, hydraulics, and tracer measurements to calculate basal shear and critical Shields stresses for different grain sizes. Field observations suggest that tagged particles in confluences routed along flanks of scour holes in confluences, with sediment depositing further downstream along bank-lateral bars than within the channel thalweg. Travel distances of RFID-tagged particles ranged up to 35 meters from original seeding points, with initial recovery rates of RFID-tagged tracers ranging between 84-89%. In both confluence and control reaches only partial mobility was observed within the entire tracer population, suggesting a hiding effect imposed by the roughness of the bed. Particles seeded in the channel thalweg experienced further travel distances than those seeded towards the banks and on bars. Differences in dispersion between confluence and control reaches are implied by field observation. This study quantified patterns of sediment routing within confluences and provided insight to the importance of confluences in large-scale sediment transport through gravel-bed rivers.