Annals of the Association of American Geographers
Excessive loading of fine sediment is a prominent cause of river impairment, not only due to direct effects on biota and habitat but because sediment is often laden with excess nutrients, metals, and toxic substances. Determining the sources and transport pathways of sediment has proven challenging. The Root River watershed in southeastern Minnesota was listed under section 303d of the U.S. Clean Water Act as having forty-three impaired reaches, raising these questions: Where is the fine sediment coming from? What proportions of the sediment are from uplands versus near-channel erosion? How much of the excess sediment loading is caused by modern land use and water management versus the legacy of past land use? Managing fine sediment at the watershed scale requires that we identify potential sources and sinks throughout the watershed, measure source contributions, and understand transport pathways of fine sediment. Here we utilize sediment fingerprinting techniques involving long- and short-lived radionuclide tracers, specifically beryllium-10 (Be-10), excess lead-210 (Pb-210(ex)), and cesium-137 (Cs-137), in combination with other supporting data sets to address the preceding questions. We document a shift in hydrologic regime and that sediment fluxes are sensitive to both magnitude and sequence of flood events. Geomorphic analysis indicates that many river reaches have accessible near-channel sources that contribute the dominant proportion of the washload flux in subwatersheds. Lastly, geochemical tracer analyses of floodplains and hillslope soils indicate that historic erosion has been variable across the landscape and the majority of suspended sediment in the river today is sourced from floodplains and terraces.
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