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Open-File Report 2014–1235

Sediment Transport and Capacity Change in Three Reservoirs, Lower Susquehanna River Basin, Pennsylvania and Maryland, 1900–2012

By Michael J. Langland

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (1.10 MB)Abstract

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has conducted numerous sediment transport studies in the Susquehanna River and in particular in three reservoirs in the Lower Susquehanna River Basin to determine sediment transport rates over the past century and to document changes in storage capacity. The Susquehanna River is the largest tributary to Chesapeake Bay and transports about one-half of the total freshwater input and substantial amounts of sediment and nutrients to the bay. The transported loads are affected by deposition in reservoirs (Lake Clarke, Lake Aldred, and Conowingo Reservoir) behind three hydropower dams. The geometry and texture of the deposited sediments in each reservoir upstream from the three dams has been a subject of research in recent decades. Particle size deposition and sediment scouring processes are part of the reservoir dynamics. A Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment was established for Chesapeake Bay to attain water-quality standards. Six states and the District of Columbia agreed to reduce loads to the bay and to meet load allocation goals for the TMDL. The USGS has been estimating annual sediment loads at the Susquehanna River at Marietta, Pennsylvania (above Lake Clarke), and Susquehanna River at Conowingo, Maryland (below Conowingo Reservoir), since the mid-1980s to predict the mass balance of sediment transport through the reservoir system. Using streamflow and sediment data from the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (upstream from the reservoirs), from 1900 to 1981, sediment loads were greatest in the early to mid-1900s when land disturbance activities from coal production and agriculture were at their peak. Sediment loads declined in the 1950s with the introduction of agricultural soil conservation practices. Loads were dominated by climatic factors in the 1960s (drought) and 1970s (very wet) and have been declining since the 1980s through 2012. The USGS developed a regression equation to predict the sediment scour load for daily mean streamflows greater than 300,000 cubic feet per second for the Lower Susquehanna River reservoirs. A compilation of data from various sources produced a range in total sediment transported through the reservoir system and allowed for apportioning to source (watershed or scour) for various streamflows. In 2011, Conowingo Reservoir was estimated to be about 92 percent of sediment storage capacity. Since construction of Conowingo Dam in 1929 through 2012, approximately 470 million tons of sediment was transported down the Susquehanna River into the reservoir system, approximately 280 million tons were trapped, and approximately 190 million tons were transported to Chesapeake Bay. Spatial and estimated total sand deposition in Conowingo Reservoir based on historical sediment cores indicated continued migration of sand downgradient toward the dam and the winnowing of silts and clays near the dam due to scour.

First posted February 18, 2015

For additional information, contact:
Director, Pennsylvania Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
215 Limekiln Road
New Cumberland, PA 17070

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Suggested citation:

Langland, M.J., 2015, Sediment transport and capacity change in three reservoirs, Lower Susquehanna River Basin, Pennsylvania and Maryland, 1900–2012: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2014–1235, 18 p.,

ISSN 2331-1258 (online)




Susquehanna River Sediment Transport

Recurrence Intervals and Total and Scour Sediment Loads

Capacity Change and Total Sediment Deposition

Sediment Cores and Spatial Distribution of Sediment in Conowingo Reservoir


References Cited

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