Journal of Soils and Sediments

, Volume 12, Issue 6, pp 966–981 | Cite as

Partitioning fine sediment loads in a headwater system with intensive agriculture

  • Christopher G. Wilson
  • A. N. Thanos Papanicolaou
  • Kevin D. Denn



This study was developed to improve understanding of the temporal variability of sediment delivery in a representative, intensively agricultural, headwater system of the U.S. Midwest by identifying the primary sediment source (i.e., uplands or channel banks) to the fine suspended sediment loads of three consecutive runoff events (with the third event being a flash flood) using naturally occurring radionuclides.

Materials and methods

Suspended sediment concentrations (C s) from discrete and continuous sampling techniques agreed well despite differences in operating principles. The total sediment flux (Q s) during each event was quantified over a 24-h period from the initiation of the rainfall using the following: (1) measured C s and flow discharges (Q w); (2) individual Q wQ s relationships for each event (herein called individual event relationships); and (3) a cumulative Q wQ s rating curve. The radionuclide tracers, beryllium-7 (7Be) and excess lead-210 (210Pbxs), were used with a simple two end-member mixing model to differentiate eroded upland surface soils and channel-derived sediments in the suspended loads of each event.

Results and discussion

Total load estimates from the measurement-based values and individual event relationships were similar, within 10 %, because they accounted for an observed non-linearity between C s and Q w (i.e., a clockwise hysteresis) during the events. The sediment rating curve assumed a linear relationship between C s and Q w and under-estimated the loads of the first two events while over-estimating the load of the flood event. The radionuclide partitioning quantified the proportion of eroded upland soils at 67 % for the first event, which was attributed to a “first flush” of readily available material from past events. For the subsequent and flood-event loads, 34 % and 21 % were respectively derived from the uplands, because less material was readily available for mobilization. Proportions are based on integrated samples for each event and are consistent with individual samples where available. During the flood event, stream bank mass failure was observed and bank erosion estimates from multiple methods compared favorably with the load results.


The radionuclide analysis showed decreasing proportions of eroded upland soils in the loads of the three successive events that was supported by observed clockwise hysteresis from source material exhaustion. Decreasing slopes observed in successive hysteresis plots for the events suggested that less material was readily available for mobilization following the first event flushing. The results of this study can assist watershed planners in identifying erosion-prone areas and determining optimal management strategies for sediment control.


7Be 210Pbxs Bank erosion Radionuclides Sediment sources Upland soil erosion 



This study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey through the Iowa Water Center in the 104B grant program. The writers are indebted to Drs. Larry Weber, Marian Muste, and Doug Schnoebelen of IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering at The University of Iowa, as well as Drs. Mark Tomer and Roger Kuhnle and Mr. John Cox of the U.S. Department of Agriculture—Agriculture Research Service for their support and guidance with this study. The writers would like also to thank Fabienne Bertrand, Tommy Sutarto, and Matt Zager for their help with the completion of this project.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher G. Wilson
    • 1
  • A. N. Thanos Papanicolaou
    • 1
  • Kevin D. Denn
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.IIHR—Hydroscience & EngineeringThe University of IowaIowa CityUSA
  2. 2.West Consultants, INCPortlandUSA

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