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Keywords:

  • suspended-sediment discharge;
  • sediment rating curve;
  • trend analyses

Abstract

Sediment rating curves, which are fitted relationships between river discharge (Q) and suspended-sediment concentration (C), are commonly used to assess patterns and trends in river water quality. In many of these studies, it is assumed that rating curves have a power-law form (i.e. C = aQb, where a and b are fitted parameters). Two fundamental questions about the utility of these techniques are assessed in this paper: (i) how well to the parameters, a and b, characterize trends in the data, and (ii) are trends in rating curves diagnostic of changes to river water or sediment discharge? As noted in previous research, the offset parameter, a, is not an independent variable for most rivers but rather strongly dependent on b and Q. Here, it is shown that a is a poor metric for trends in the vertical offset of a rating curve, and a new parameter, â, as determined by the discharge-normalized power function [C = â (Q/QGM)b], where QGM is the geometric mean of the Q-values sampled, provides a better characterization of trends. However, these techniques must be applied carefully, because curvature in the relationship between log(Q) and log(C), which exists for many rivers, can produce false trends in â and b. Also, it is shown that trends in â and b are not uniquely diagnostic of river water or sediment supply conditions. For example, an increase in â can be caused by an increase in sediment supply, a decrease in water supply or a combination of these conditions. Large changes in water and sediment supplies can occur without any change in the parameters, â and b. Thus, trend analyses using sediment rating curves must include additional assessments of the time-dependent rates and trends of river water, sediment concentrations and sediment discharge. Published 2014. This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA. Hydrological Processes published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.