The dispersal of flood sediment from small river systems is a poorly studied, yet potentially important aspect of active continental-margin sedimentation. In January 1995, during a flood with a 30 yr return period, the Eel River (northern California) delivered an estimated 25 ± 3 × 106 t (metric tons) of fine-grained (<62 µm) sediment to the ocean. The flood formed a distinct layer on the sea bed that was centered on the 70 m isobath, extended for 30 km along shelf and 8 km across shelf, and was as thick as 8.5 cm, but contained only 6 × 106 t of sediment. Thus, 75% of the flood-derived sediment did not form a recognizable deposit, but was instead rapidly and widely dispersed over the continental margin. Stratigraphic models of, and compilations of sediment flux to, active continental margins need to take the dispersive nature of small river systems into account.