Managing salinity in upper Colorado River Basin streams: Selecting catchments for sediment control efforts using watershed characteristics and random forests models

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Abstract

Elevated concentrations of dissolved-solids (salinity) including calcium, sodium, sulfate, and chloride, among others, in the Colorado River cause substantial problems for its water users. Previous efforts to reduce dissolved solids in upper Colorado River basin (UCRB) streams often focused on reducing suspended-sediment transport to streams, but few studies have investigated the relationship between suspended sediment and salinity, or evaluated which watershed characteristics might be associated with this relationship. Are there catchment properties that may help in identifying areas where control of suspended sediment will also reduce salinity transport to streams? A random forests classification analysis was performed on topographic, climate, land cover, geology, rock chemistry, soil, and hydrologic information in 163 UCRB catchments. Two random forests models were developed in this study: one for exploring stream and catchment characteristics associated with stream sites where dissolved solids increase with increasing suspended-sediment concentration, and the other for predicting where these sites are located in unmonitored reaches. Results of variable importance from the exploratory random forests models indicate that no simple source, geochemical process, or transport mechanism can easily explain the relationship between dissolved solids and suspended sediment concentrations at UCRB monitoring sites. Among the most important watershed characteristics in both models were measures of soil hydraulic conductivity, soil erodibility, minimum catchment elevation, catchment area, and the silt component of soil in the catchment. Predictions at key locations in the basin were combined with observations from selected monitoring sites, and presented in map-form to give a complete understanding of where catchment sediment control practices would also benefit control of dissolved solids in streams.

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Tillman, F. D., Anning, D. W., Heilman, J. A., Buto, S. G., & Miller, M. P. (2018). Managing salinity in upper Colorado River Basin streams: Selecting catchments for sediment control efforts using watershed characteristics and random forests models. Water (Switzerland), 10(6). https://doi.org/10.3390/w10060676

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