USGS Nehalem Bay Sedimentation Study

Historical Changes in Bed Elevation and Water Depth
within the Nehalem Bay, Oregon, 1891–2019

Scientific Investigations Report 2021-5108
Prepared in cooperation with the Port of Nehalem
By: Mackenzie K. Keith, Krista L. Jones, and Gabriel W. Gordon

Document: Report (6.5 MB pdf)
Data Release: USGS data release — Digital elevation model of the Nehalem Bay near Wheeler, Oregon 2019
Download citation as: RIS | Dublin Core

First posted December 6, 2021

For additional information, contact:
Director, Oregon Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
2130 SW 5th Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97201

Estuaries, at the nexus of rivers and the ocean, are depositional areas that respond to changes in streamflow, tides, sea level, and inputs of sediment from marine and watershed sources. Understanding changes in bed elevations, deposited and eroded sediment, and water depth throughout estuaries is relevant for understanding their present-day status and long-term evolution, identifying potential hazards to human communities, and informing estuarine conservation. In response to observations of sedimentation in the Nehalem Bay, northwestern Oregon, by the Port of Nehalem, the magnitudes and patterns of bathymetric change in the Bay were documented and described by two approaches. The first approach compared changes in bed elevation with estimated volumes of erosion and deposition from overlapping survey data acquired in 1957 and 2019 for the area of the Nehalem Bay from upstream of the Highway 101 bridge to downstream of Fishery Point. The second approach examined changes in water depth for seven zones from the confluence of the North Fork and Nehalem Rivers to the mouth of the Nehalem River using nautical charts (1891, 1947, 1970, 1990, and 2004). These two approaches were used because the bathymetric surveys from 1957 and 2019 could be tied to a common vertical datum, allowing for a direct comparison of changes in bed elevations, whereas the nautical charts could not be tied to a common vertical datum, which limited the analyses to a comparison of changes in water depths over a broader time frame.

Bed elevation changes from 1957 to 2019 were assessed from upstream of the Highway 101 bridge to downstream of Fishery Point where the two surveys overlapped (2 square kilometers) using thalweg longitudinal profiles, channel cross sections, and digital elevation models (DEMs) showing the elevation differences between the two surveys (or DEMs of difference). The most prominent change between 1957 and 2019 was the migration of the thalweg (or deepest part of the channel) between the downstream end of Lazarus Island and downstream of Fishery Point; this migration resulted in sediment deposition in the former thalweg and sediment erosion in formerly shallow areas to form the new thalweg. Bed elevation changes in the thalweg also varied longitudinally between 1957 and 2019. The bed elevation of the thalweg in both surveys, however, was generally less than 1 meter (m). The thalweg in the area of overlapping surveys shortened from about 7.0 to 6.7 kilometers in length over that same period. The bed elevation changes between the DEMs showed that maximum erosion and deposition was 4.3 and 4.5 m, respectively. In this same time period, the net change in sediment volume was 230,000 cubic meters (m3), indicating net deposition. However, the error estimated for the 95 percent confidence interval analyses is ±315,000 m3, and therefore does not preclude the possibility that net erosion may have occurred.

Historical changes in water depth from soundings depicted on nautical charts from 1891, 1947, 1970, 1990, and 2004 were evaluated by assessing spatial and temporal changes for seven zones of the Nehalem Bay. Across all years and zones, water depths ranged from about 0.2 to 9.4 m, whereas median water depths ranged from 0.3 to 6.4 m. Median depths and the range of water depths did not systematically increase or decrease throughout all zones during the same periods. In all nautical charts, the zone at the mouth of the Nehalem River consistently had the deepest soundings (7.9 to 9.4 m) and the greatest range of water depths (7.3 to 8.8 m). Qualitative evaluation of the nautical charts showed minimal changes in the overall shape of the Nehalem Bay. The exception to this observation was at the mouth of the Bay, where two historical outlets to the Pacific Ocean depicted in the 1891 nautical chart were reduced to one outlet following the construction of jetties (1916 and 1918).

The results of this study emphasize that bed elevations and water depths within the Nehalem Bay have varied between 1891 and 2019, as illustrated by the lateral and vertical changes in the thalweg and changes in water depths over time. Changes in thalweg position and related patterns of sediment erosion and deposition are expected in the future as the Nehalem Bay continues to respond to changes in tides, sea level, streamflow, and sediment inputs from watershed and marine sources. The results of this study and the surveys from 1957 and 2019 provide a foundation for documenting and evaluating future changes in the Nehalem Bay and prioritizing actions to manage and protect natural resources and recreational access to the Nehalem Bay.