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The rivers of Southern California deliver episodic pulses of water, sediment, nutrients, and pollutants to the region's coastal waters. Although river-sediment dispersal is observed in positively buoyant (hypopycnal) turbid plumes extending tens of kilometers from river mouths, very little of the river sediment is found in these plumes. Rather, river sediment settles quickly from hypopycnal plumes to the seabed, where transport is controlled by bottom-boundary layer processes, presumably including fluid-mud (hyperpycnal) gravity currents. Here we investigate the geographical patterns of river-sediment dispersal processes by examining suspended-sediment concentrations and loads and the continental shelf morphology offshore river mouths. Throughout Southern California, river sediment is discharged at concentrations adequately high to induce enhanced sediment settling, including negative buoyancy. The rivers draining the Western Transverse Range produce suspended-sediment concentrations that are orders of magnitude greater than those in the urbanized region and Peninsular Range to the south, largely due to differences in sediment yield. The majority of sediment discharge from the Santa Clara River and Calleguas Creek occurs above the theoretical negative buoyancy concentration (>40 g/l). These rivers also produce event sediment loading as great as the Eel River, where fluid-mud gravity currents are observed. The continental shelf of Southern California has variable morphology, which influences the ability to transport via gravity currents. Over half of the rivers examined are adjacent to shelf slopes greater than 0.01, which are adequately steep to sustain auto-suspending gravity currents across the shelf, and have little (<10 m) Holocene sediment accumulation. Shelf settings of the Ventura, Santa Clara, and Tijuana Rivers are very broad and low sloped (less than 0.004), which suggests that fluid-mud gravity currents could transport across these shelves, albeit slowly (~10 cm/s) and only with adequate wave-generated shear stress and sediment loading. Calleguas Creek is unique in that it discharges directly into a steep-sloped canyon (greater than 0.1) that should allow for violent auto-suspending gravity currents. In light of this, only one shelf setting—the Santa Clara and Ventura—has considerable Holocene sediment accumulation (exceeding 60 m), and here we show that the morphology of this shelf is very similar to an equilibrium shape predicted by gravity-current sediment transport. Thus, we conclude that a wide distribution of river-shelf settings occur in the Southern California Bight, which will directly influence sediment dispersal processes—both dilute suspended and gravity-current transport—and sediment-accumulation patterns.

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