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Pacific Coastal & Marine Science Center

Applied Sediment Transport

Animation shows an example of the bedform and cross-bedding visuals from the Seds web site.


There is an increasing need to understand, model, and predict, sediment transport and how it is impacted by dam construction, dam removal, dredging, beach nourishment, and other human and natural activities along the river/sea interface. This understanding of sediment routing from source to sink is necessary in order to remove obsolete or unsafe dams, change dam operations, or implement efforts to restore habitat in streams, rivers, and estuaries at the river/sea interface. The goals of this project are:

  1. to use the Coastal and Marine Team's expertise and equipment to help solve environmental problems caused by sediment erosion, transport, or deposition that resulted from human tinkering with watersheds, estuaries, and beaches;
  2. to take advantage of human and natural alterations of sediment-transport systems to conduct large-scale experiments that will improve our understanding of the fundamentals of sediment transport;
  3. to conduct research on sediment problems at the river/sea interface in areas of interest to managers and other agencies;
  4. to conduct research on sediment transport and seafloor bedforms to support ONR's mine-detection program;
  5. to continue development of seafloor instrumentation including underwater microscope for digital grain-size analysis; and
  6. to conduct research on the origin and structure of deposits of high-concentration flows.

The land/sea interface is an important setting both for fundamental science questions and for sediment management. The science is important because of the wide range of active processes and the magnitudes of water and sediment involved. The setting is important because of the large proportion of the US population that lives near the coast. These science and management questions are particularly significant where rivers enter the sea. This interface is a main conduit for sediment and pollutants entering the ocean; it is an important biological setting, particularly in estuaries; it is a main site of our nation's harbors; and many of our large cities are situated where rivers enter the sea. Many of our nation's watersheds, estuaries, and beaches been altered radically by human actions over the past two centuries. Many dams have been constructed, and some have been removed. Other land-use practices have increased or decreased the delivery of water and sediment to the coast. Estuaries and harbors have been polluted and dredged. Such human tinkering with watersheds has created an important need to understand the processes involved, to predict the effects of changes to the coastal watersheds, to answer questions raised by managers and other government agencies. Addressing these questions also provides an opportunity to study some of the largest sediment transport experiments in history. Work in the Applied Sediment Transport Project directly supports the mission of the USGS and other DOI agencies. Some tasks have been mandated by acts of Congress or ordered by the Secretary of Interior. Results from this project have led directly to new fundamental understanding of sediment transport as well as changes in dam operations. Project results have been utilized by other agencies and the Secretary of Interior.

Outcome Statements

  1. Experimental high flows in Grand Canyon. In FY03, Secretary of the Interior Norton approved this project's recommendations for a habitat-restoration flood in Grand Canyon National Park (Rubin et al., Eos, 2002). The experimental flood was implemented in November, 2004. Similarly, we were the lead authors of the proposal for the 2008 experimental high flow.
  2. Digital grain-size technology. In 2004, the technology developed by this project for mapping bed-sediment grain size was patented. Since then the technology has been provided to many other projects within and outside of CMG.
  3. Studies of Englebright reservoir were used by CALFED to evaluate removal of Englebright Dam.
  4. Results of SF Bay historical erosion and sedimentation studies are being used by California Coastal Conservancy to plan restoration of salt ponds in South San Francisco Bay.
  5. Results of SF Bay studies are being used to evaluate dredging and wetland restoration issues in the central bay and in San Pablo Bay.
  6. Results of research on ripple orientation and morphology were funded by Office of Naval Research and used by them for detection of explosive mines buried beneath the seafloor.
  7. A current focus of the project is installation of a new cabled seafloor observatory, with the unique capability of hourly measurement of bed-sediment grain size using digital imagery. The system will also measure and record waves, currents, sediment transport, and ripple morphology.
Photograph of tidal bedforms with lee-side spurs, Loughor Estuary, South Wales, photographed by Trevor Elliott.
Tidal bedforms with lee-side spurs, Loughor Estuary, South Wales, photographed by Trevor Elliott.


Coastal, Wetland, Riverine, and Associated Watersheds

Principal Investigators



This Applied Sediment Transport Project evolved from the Coastal Watersheds Project in 2009.


  1. Study transport of sediment from rivers to estuarine and marine settings. Investigate and develop theory and models that improve predictions of sediment resuspension and transport.
  2. Use dams, artificial floods, dredging operations, and other human activities to conduct large-scale sediment transport experiments to learn how to predict sediment transport more accurately at the interface between rivers, estuaries, and marine settings.
  3. Conduct research and advise managers on specific watershed issues related to human activities such as impact of dams or dam removal on downstream river, estuarine, and marine environments and habitats.
  4. Conduct field and lab experiments to understand the origin and structure of sediment deposits produced by flows with high concentrations of sediment.


  1. Use CMG expertise to address relevant river/sea/estuarine sediment transport and sediment-management issues.
  2. Improve our fundamental understanding of sediment transport while addressing these management issues (taking advantage of large-scale experimental floods and other human activities to study transport of geologic quantities of sediment).
  3. Use the results obtained in these flow experiments to improve sediment transport models. For this strategy, the Sediment Transport and Applications Project is collaborating with the Community Sediment Transport Modeling Project (Sherwood).
  4. Conduct field studies and/or lab experiments on the origin and structure of deposits of high-concentration flows.

Schematic illustration showing how cross bedding forms according to the ripple pattern on the surface and the direction of waves, currents, etc.Tasks and SubTasks


Buscombe, D., and Rubin, D.M., 2012, Advances in the Simulation and Automated Measurement of Well-Sorted Granular Material, Part 2: Direct Measures of Particle Properties: Journal of Geophysical Research - Earth Surface, 117, F02002, doi:10.1029/2011JF001975. Download "Grain-size toolbox" from the Grain Size from Digital Images of Sediment web page.

Buscombe, D., Rubin, D.M., and Warrick, J.A., 2010, A universal approximation of grain size from images of noncohesive sediment: Journal of Geophysical Research, v.115, F02015, doi:10.1029/2009JF001477. (840 K PDF)

Chezar, H., and Rubin, D., 2004, Underwater microscope system: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, patent number 6,680,795, January 20, 2004, 9 pages.

Hunsinger, G.B., S. Mitra, J.A. Warrick, and C.R. Alexander, 2008, Oceanic loading of wildfire-derived organic compounds from a small mountainous river: Journal of Geophysical Research Biogeosciences. v. 113, G02007, doi:10.1029/2007JG000476

Lacy, J.R., Buscombe, D., and D.R. Rubin (2010), Tsunami-enhanced sediment resuspension on the inner shelf in northern Monterey Bay, Eos Trans. AGU, 91(26), Ocean Sci. Meet. Suppl., Abstract GO24A-05

Lacy, J.R., Rubin, D.M., H. Ikeda, H., K. Mokodai, and D.M. Hanes. 2007. Bedforms created by simulated waves and currents in a large flume. Journal of Geophysical Research 112 (C10018). doi:10.1029/2006JC003942

Rubin, D.M., 2004, A simple autocorrelation algorithm for determining grain size from digital images of sediment: Journal of Sedimentary Research, v. 74, p. 160-165. (454 K PDF)
Example of basic code for obtaining grain size using calibrated spatial autocorrelation.

Rubin, D.M., 2006, Ripple effect: unforeseen applications of sand studies: Eos, v. 87, p. 293 and 297.

Rubin, D.M., and Carter, C.L., 2005, Bedforms 4.0: MATLAB code for simulating bedforms and cross-bedding: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2005-1272 [].

Rubin, D.M., and Carter, C.L., 2006, Bedforms and Cross-Bedding in Animation: SEPM Atlas Series, No. 2, DVD,

Rubin, D.M., and Torresan, L.Z., USGS Bedform Sedimentology Web Site:

Rubin, D.M., Nelson, J.M., and Topping, D.J., 1998, Relation of inversely graded deposits to suspended-sediment grain-size evolution during the 1996 flood experiment in Grand Canyon: Geology, v. 26, p. 99-102.

Rubin, D.M., Topping, D.J., Schmidt, J.C., Hazel, J., Kaplinski, M., and Melis, T.S., 2002, Recent sediment Studies refute Glen Canyon Dam hypothesis: Eos, June 11, 2002.

Rubin, D.M., and Topping, D.J., 2001, Quantifying the relative importance of flow regulation and grain-size regulation of suspended-sediment transport (alpha) and tracking changes in grain size on the bed (beta): Water Resources Research, v 37, p, 133-146.

Rubin, D.M., and Tsoar, H., and Blumberg, D., 2008, A second look at western Sinai seif dunes and their lateral migration: Geomorphology, v. 93, p. 335-342.

Snyder, N.P., Rubin, D.M., Alpers, C.N., Childs, J.R., Curtis, J.A., Flint, L.E., and Wright, S.A., 2004, Estimating rates and properties of sediment accumulation behind a dam: Englebright Lake, Yuba River, northern California: Water Resources Research, v. 40, W11301, doi:10.1029/2004WR003279.

Topping, D.J., Rubin, D.M., and Nelson, J.M., Kinzel, P.J. III, and Corson, I.C., 2000, Colorado River sediment transport: Part 2: Systematic bed-elevation and grain-size effects of supply limitation: Water Resources Research, v. 36, p. 543-570.

Topping, D.J., Rubin, D.M., and Vierra, L.E., Jr., 2000, Colorado River sediment transport: Part 1: Natural sediment supply limitation and the influence of Glen Canyon Dam: Water Resources Research, v. 36, p. 55-542.

Topping, D.J., Rubin, D.M., Nelson, J.M., Kinzel, P.J., III, and Bennett, J.P., 1999, Linkage between grain-size evolution and sediment depletion during Colorado River floods, in

Warrick, J.A., Rubin, D.M., Ruggiero, P., Harney, J., Draut, A.E., and Buscombe, D., 2009, Cobble cam: grain-size measurements of sand to boulder from digital photographs and autocorrelation analyses: Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 34, 1811-1821, doi:10.1002/esp.1877. Download the files from Jon's staff web page.

Webb, R.H., Schmidt, J.C., Marzolf, G.R., and Valdez, R.A., eds., The 1996 Controlled Flood in Grand Canyon: Washington, D.C., American Geophysical Union, Geophysical Monograph 110, p. 71-98.


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