Skip to main content


Log in

Tidal-Fluvial and Estuarine Processes in the Lower Columbia River: I. Along-Channel Water Level Variations, Pacific Ocean to Bonneville Dam

  • Published:
Estuaries and Coasts Aims and scope Submit manuscript


This two-part paper provides comprehensive time and frequency domain analyses and models of along-channel water level variations in the 234-km-long Lower Columbia River and Estuary (LCRE) and documents the response of floodplain wetlands thereto. In Part I, power spectra, continuous wavelet transforms, and harmonic analyses are used to understand the influences of tides, river flow, upwelling and downwelling, and hydropower operations (“power-peaking”) on the water level regime. Estuarine water levels are influenced primarily by astronomical tides and coastal processes and secondarily by river flow. The importance of coastal and tidal influences decreases in the landward direction, and water levels are increasingly controlled by river flow variations at periods from ≤1 day to years. Water level records are only slightly nonstationary near the ocean, but become highly irregular upriver. Although astronomically forced tidal constituents decrease above the estuary, tidal fortnightly and overtide variations increase for 80–200 km landward, both relative to major tidal constituents and in absolute terms. Near the head of the tide at Bonneville Dam, strong diel and weekly fluctuations caused by power-peaking replace tidal daily (diurnal and semidiurnal) and fortnightly variations. Tides account for 60–70 %, river flow and seasonal processes 5–20 %, and weather 2–4 % of the total variance in the seaward 60 km of the system. In the landward 70 km of the LCRE, seasonal-fluvial variations account for 80–90 % of the variance, power-peaking 1–6 %, and tides <5 %. In Part II, regression models of water levels and inundation patterns are used to understand the distribution of floodplain wetlands, and a system zonation is defined based on bedrock geology, hydrology, and biota.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8

Similar content being viewed by others


  • Amin, M. 1983. On perturbations of harmonic constants in the Thames estuary. Geophysical Journal Royal Astronomical Society 73: 587–603.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Amphlett, M.B., T.E.Brabben, 1991. Measuring freshwater flows in large tidal rivers. In: Braga, Jr., B.P.F., Fernandez-Jauregui, C.A. [Eds] Water management of the Amazon Basin Manaus 5-9, 1990. UNESCO, Montevideo, pp. 179-190.

  • Barendregt, A., D. Whigham, and A. Baldwin (eds.). 2009. Tidal freshwater wetlands. Leiden: Backhuys Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bezerra, M.O.M., R. Pontes, M.N. Gallo, A.M.C. Carmo, S.B. Vinzon, and R.P. Rosario. 2008. Forcing and mixing processes in the Amazon estuary: a study case. Nuovo Cimento- Societa Italiana di Fisica Sezione C 31: 743–756.

  • Borde, A.B., V.I. Cullinan, H.L. Diefenderfer, R.M. Thom, R.M. Kaufmann, J. Sagar, and C. Corbett. 2012. Lower Columbia River and Estuary Ecosystem Restoration Program Reference Site Study: 2011 restoration analysis. Prepared for the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

  • Bunn, S.E., and A.H. Arthington. 2002. Basic principles and ecological consequences of altered flow regimes for aquatic biodiversity. Environmental Management 30: 492–507.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Buschman, F.A., A.J.F. Hoitink, M. van der Vegt, and P. Hoekstra. 2010. Subtidal flow division at a shallow tidal junction, Water Resources. Research. 46, W12515. doi:10.1029/ 2010WR009266.

  • Cartwright, D.E., and A.C. Edden. 1973. Corrected tables of tidal harmonics. Geophysics Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 33: 253–264.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Castaing, P., and G.P. Allen. 1981. Mechanisms controlling seaward escape of suspended sediment from the Gironde: a macrotidal estuary in France. Marine Geology 40: 101–118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Diefenderfer, H.L., and D.R. Montgomery. 2009. Pool spacing, channel morphology, and the restoration of tidal forested wetlands of the Columbia River, U.S.A. Restoration Ecology 17: 158–168.

  • DiLorenzo, J.L., P. Huang, M.L.Thatcher, and T.O. Najarian. 1993. Dredging impacts of Delaware estuary tides, Estuarine and Coastal Modeling III: Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference, pp. 86−104.

  • Emery, W.J., and R.E. Thomson. 1997. Data analysis methods in physical oceanography. New York: Pergamon Press. 634pp.

    Google Scholar 

  • Flinchem, E.P., and D.A. Jay. 2000. An introduction to wavelet transform tidal analysis methods. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 51: 177–200.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gallo, Marcos, and Susana Vinzon. 2005. Generation of overtides and compound tides in Amazon estuary. Ocean Dynamics 55: 5–6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Giese, B.S., and D.A. Jay. 1989. Modeling tidal energetics of the Columbia River Estuary. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 29: 549–571.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Godin, G. 1999. The propagation of tides up rivers with special considerations on the upper Saint Lawrence River. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 48: 307–324.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gowing, D.J., and G. Spoor. 1998. United Kingdom floodplains, eds. R. Bailey, P. Jose, and B. Sherwood, 185-196. Otley, United Kingdom, Westbury Academic and Scientific Publishing.

  • Hida, N., J.G. Maia, O. Shimmi, M. Hiraoka, and N. Mizutani. 1998. Annual and daily changes of river water level at Breves and Caxiuana, Amazon Estuary. Geographical Review of Japan Series B 71: 100–105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Horrevoets, A.C., H.H.G. Savenije, J.N. Schuurman, and S. Graas. 2004. The influence of river discharge on tidal damping in alluvial estuaries. Journal of Hydrology 294: 213–228. doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2004.02.012.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Huber, P. J., 1996. Robust statistical procedures, 2nd Ed. No. 68 in CBMS-NSF Regional Conference Series in Applied Mathematics Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

  • Jay, D.A. 1991. Green’s law revisited: tidal long wave propagation in channels with strong topography. Journal of Geophysical Research 96: 20,585–20,598.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jay, D.A., and E.P. Flinchem. 1997. Interaction of fluctuating river flow with a barotropic tide: a test of wavelet tidal analysis methods. Journal of Geophysical Research 102: 5705–5720.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jay, D.A., and E.P. Flinchem. 1999. A comparison of methods for analysis of tidal records containing multi-scale non-tidal background energy. Continental Shelf Research 19: 1695–1732.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jay, D.A., B.S. Giese, and C.R. Sherwood. 1990. Energetics and sedimentary processes in the Columbia River Estuary. Progress in Oceanography 25: 157–174.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jay, D.A., K. Leffler, and S. Degens. 2011. Long-term evolution of Columbia River tides. Journal of Waterway, Port, Coastal, and Ocean Engineering 137: 182–191. doi:10.1061/(ASCE)WW.1943-5460.0000082.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jay, D.A., and P. Naik. 2011. Distinguishing human and climate influences on hydrological disturbance processes in the Columbia River, USA. Hydrological Sciences Journal 56: 1186–1209.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jay, D.A., and J.D. Smith. 1990. Circulation, density distribution and neap-spring transitions in the Columbia River Estuary. Progress in Oceanography 25: 81–112.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jiao, N., Y. Zhao, T. Luo, and X. Wang. 2006. Natural and anthropogenic forcing on the dynamics of virioplankton in the Yangtze River estuary. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 86: 543–550.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Junk, W.J., and K.M. Wantzen. 2004. The flood pulse concept: new aspects, approaches and applications—an update. In: Welcomme, R.L., Petr, T. [Eds] Proceedings of the second international symposium on the management of large rivers for fisheries volume II: sustaining livelihoods and biodiversity in the new millennium, Phnom Penh, 11-14 February 2003. RAP Publication 2004/17. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Bangkok, pp.117-140.

  • Kostachuk, R. 2002. Flow and sediment dynamics in migrating salinity intrusions: Fraser River Estuary, Canada. Estuaries 25: 197–203.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kukulka, T., and D.A. Jay. 2003a. Impacts of Columbia River discharge on salmonid habitat I. A non-stationary fluvial tide model. Journal of Geophysical Research 108: 3293. doi:10.1029/2002JC001382.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kukulka, T., and D.A. Jay. 2003b. Impacts of Columbia River discharge on salmonid habitat II. Changes in shallow-water habitat. Journal of Geophysical Research 108: 3294. doi:10.1029/2003JC001829.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • LeBlond, P.H. 1978. On tidal propagation in shallow rivers. Journal of Geophysical Research 83: 4717–4721.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Leffler, K., and D.A. Jay. 2009. enhancing tidal harmonic analysis: robust (hybrid L1/L2) solutions. Continental Shelf Research 29: 78–88.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Levings, C.D., K. Conlin, and B. Raymond. 1991. Intertidal habitats used by juvenile Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) rearing in the north arm of the Fraser River estuary. Marine Pollution Bulletin 22: 20–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mikhailova, M.V., and M.V. Isupova. 2006. Water circulation, sediment dynamics, erosional and accumulative processes in the Gironde Estuary (France). Water Research 33: 10–23.

  • Munk, W.H., and K. Hasselmann. 1964. Super-resolution of tides, in Studies in Oceanography (Hidaka Volume). Tokyo, pp. 339–344.

  • Naik, P.K., and D.A. Jay. 2005. Virgin flow estimation of the Columbia River (1879-1928). Hydrologic Processes 19: 1807–1824. doi:10.1002/hyp.5636.

  • Naik, P.K., and D.A. Jay. 2011. Distinguishing human and climate influences on the Columbia River: changes in mean flow and sediment transport. Journal of Hydrology 404: 259–277.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nittrouer, J.A., J. Shaw, M.P. Lamb, and D. Mohrig. 2012. Spatial and temporal trends for water-flow velocity and bed-material sediment transport in the lower Mississippi River. GSA Bulletin 124: 400–414. doi:10.1130/B30497.1.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pawlowicz, R., R. Beardsley, and S. Lentz. 2002. Classical tidal harmonic analysis with errors in Matlab using T-Tide. Computers and Geosciences 28: 929–937.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Parker, B. B., 1991. The relative importance of the various nonlinear mechanisms in a wide range of tidal interactions. In: Progress in Tidal Hydrodynamics, Ed. by B. B. Parker, John Wiley, pp. 237-268.

  • Sagar, J.P., A.B. Borde, L.L. Johnson, C.A. Corbett, J. L. Morace, K.H. Macneale, et al. 2013. Juvenile salmon ecology in tidal freshwater wetlands of the lower Columbia River and Estuary: Synthesis of the ecosystem monitoring program, 2005-2010. Portland: Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

  • Sassi, M. G., A. Hoitink, B. de Brye, B. Vermeulen, and E. Deleersnijder (2011), Tidal impact on the division of river discharge over distributary channels in the Mahakam Delta, Ocean Dynamics, 61: 2211–2228. doi:10.1007/s10236-011-0473-9.

  • Sherwood, C.R., D.A. Jay, R.B. Harvey, P. Hamilton, and C.A. Simenstad. 1990. Historical changes in the Columbia River estuary. Progress in Oceanography 25: 299–352.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Simenstad, C.A., J.L. Burke, J.E. O’Connor, C. Cannon, D.W. Heatwole, M.F. Ramirez, I.R. Waite, T.D. Counihan, and K.L. Jones. 2011. Columbia River Estuary ecosystem classification—concept and application. U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011-1228, 60 p.

  • Smith, J.P., C.R. Olsen, T.D. Bullen, and D.J. Brabander. 2009. Strontium isotope record of seasonal scale variations in sediment sources and accumulation in low-energy, subtidal areas of the lower Hudson River estuary. Chemical Geology 264: 375–384.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Stronach, J.A., and T.S. Murty. 1989. Nonlinear river-tidal interactions in the Fraser River, Canada. Marine Geodesy. 13: 313–339.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Welcome, R.L. 1979. Fisheries ecology of floodplain rivers. New York: Longman.

    Google Scholar 

  • White, M.A., J.C. Schmidt, and D.J. Topping. 2005. Application of wavelet analysis for monitoring the hydrologic effects of dam operation: Glen Canyon dam and the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, Arizona. River Research and Applications 21: 551–565.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wiele, S.M., and J.D. Smith. 1996. A reach averaged model of diurnal discharge wave pro pagation down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Water Resources Research 32: 1375–1386.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wolanski, E. 2007. Estuarine ecohydrology. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    Google Scholar 

  • Yixin, Y., X. Fumin, and M. Lihua. 2001. Analysis of hydrodynamic mechanics for the change of the lower-section of the Jiuduan Sandbank in the Yangtze River Estuary. Proceedings of the congress-international association for hydraulic research Conf 29: 179–186.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zolezzi, G.A., M.C. Bellin, B. Maiolini Bruno, and A. Siviglia. 2009. Assessing hydrological alterations at multiple temporal scales: Adige River, Italy. Water Resources Research 45:W12421. doi:10.1029/2008WR007266.

Download references


This work was supported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Columbia River Fish Mitigation Program. Funding for floodplain water level data collection by PNNL was also provided in part by the Bonneville Power Administration and Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership. R. Kaufmann and S. Zimmerman, PNNL, conducted RTK surveys and otherwise contributed to water level data collection. Partial support for D. A. Jay was provided by the National Science Foundation, grant OCE-0929055. We thank Carly McNeil for data processing and analyses for the floodplain stations.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to David A. Jay.

Additional information

Communicated by Carl T. Friedrichs

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.


(docx 52.7 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Jay, D.A., Leffler, K., Diefenderfer, H.L. et al. Tidal-Fluvial and Estuarine Processes in the Lower Columbia River: I. Along-Channel Water Level Variations, Pacific Ocean to Bonneville Dam. Estuaries and Coasts 38, 415–433 (2015).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: