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The sources of sediment to the Southern California Bight were investigated with new calculations and published records of sediment fluxes, both natural and anthropogenic. We find that rivers are by far the largest source of sediment, producing over 10 × 106 t/yr on average, or over 80% of the sediment input to the Bight. This river flux is variable, however, over both space and time. The rivers draining the Transverse Ranges produce sediment at rates approximately an order of magnitude greater than the Peninsular Ranges (600–1500 t/km2/yr versus <90 t/km2/yr, respectively). Although the Transverse Range rivers represent only 23% of the total Southern California watershed drainage area, they are responsible for over 75% of the total sediment flux. River sediment flux is ephemeral and highly pulsed due to the semiarid climate and the influence of infrequent large storms. For more than 90% of the time, negligible amounts of sediment are discharged from the region's rivers, and over half of the post-1900 sediment load has been discharged during events with recurrence intervals greater than 10 yr. These rare, yet important, events are related to the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and the majority of sediment flux occurs during ENSO periods.

Temporal trends in sediment discharge due to land-use changes and river damming are also observed. We estimate that there has been a 45% reduction in suspended-sediment flux due to the construction of dams. However, pre-dam sediment loads were likely artificially high due to the massive land-use changes of coastal California to rangeland during the nineteenth century. This increase in sediment production is observed in estuarine deposits throughout coastal California, which reveal that sedimentation rates were two to ten times higher during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than during pre-European colonization.

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