Technical note: False low turbidity readings from optical probes during high suspended-sediment concentrations
Turbidity, a measure of water clarity, is monitored for a variety of purposes including (1) to help determine whether water is safe to drink, (2) to establish background conditions of lakes and rivers and detect pollution caused by construction projects and stormwater discharge, (3) to study sediment transport in rivers and erosion in catchments, (4) to manage siltation of water reservoirs, and (5) to establish connections with aquatic biological properties, such as primary production and predator-prey interactions. Turbidity is typically measured with an optical probe that detects light scattered from particles in the water. Probes have defined upper limits of the range of turbidity that they can measure. The general assumption is that when turbidity exceeds this upper limit, the values of turbidity will be constant, i.e., the probe is "pegged"; however, this assumption is not necessarily valid. In rivers with limited variation in the physical properties of the suspended sediment, at lower suspended-sediment concentrations, an increase in suspended-sediment concentration will cause a linear increase in turbidity. When the suspended-sediment concentration in these rivers is high, turbidity levels can exceed the upper measurement limit of an optical probe and record a constant "pegged" value. However, at extremely high suspended-sediment concentrations, optical turbidity probes do not necessarily stay "pegged" at a constant value. Data from the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA, and a laboratory experiment both demonstrate that when turbidity exceeds instrument-pegged conditions, increasing suspended-sediment concentration (and thus increasing turbidity) may cause optical probes to record decreasing "false" turbidity values that appear to be within the valid measurement range of the probe. Therefore, under high-turbidity conditions, other surrogate measurements of turbidity (e.g., acoustic-attenuation measurements or suspended-sediment samples) are necessary to correct these low false turbidity measurements and accurately measure turbidity.