Articles | Volume 20, issue 3
Research article
18 Mar 2016
Research article |  | 18 Mar 2016

Analytical approach for determining the mean water level profile in an estuary with substantial fresh water discharge

Huayang Cai, Hubert H. G. Savenije, Chenjuan Jiang, Lili Zhao, and Qingshu Yang

Abstract. The mean water level in estuaries rises in the landward direction due to a combination of the density gradient, the tidal asymmetry, and the backwater effect. This phenomenon is more prominent under an increase of the fresh water discharge, which strongly intensifies both the tidal asymmetry and the backwater effect. However, the interactions between tide and river flow and their individual contributions to the rise of the mean water level along the estuary are not yet completely understood. In this study, we adopt an analytical approach to describe the tidal wave propagation under the influence of substantial fresh water discharge, where the analytical solutions are obtained by solving a set of four implicit equations for the tidal damping, the velocity amplitude, the wave celerity, and the phase lag. The analytical model is used to quantify the contributions made by tide, river, and tide–river interaction to the water level slope along the estuary, which sheds new light on the generation of backwater due to tide–river interaction. Subsequently, the method is applied to the Yangtze estuary under a wide range of river discharge conditions where the influence of both tidal amplitude and fresh water discharge on the longitudinal variation of the mean tidal water level is explored. Analytical model results show that in the tide-dominated region the mean water level is mainly controlled by the tide–river interaction, while it is primarily determined by the river flow in the river-dominated region, which is in agreement with previous studies. Interestingly, we demonstrate that the effect of the tide alone is most important in the transitional zone, where the ratio of velocity amplitude to river flow velocity approaches unity. This has to do with the fact that the contribution of tidal flow, river flow, and tide–river interaction to the residual water level slope are all proportional to the square of the velocity scale. Finally, we show that, in combination with extreme-value theory (e.g. generalized extreme-value theory), the method may be used to obtain a first-order estimation of the frequency of extreme water levels relevant for water management and flood control. By presenting these analytical relations, we provide direct insight into the interaction between tide and river flow, which will be useful for the study of other estuaries that experience substantial river discharge in a tidal region.

Short summary
In this paper, an analytical model for tide-river dynamics has been used to understand the influence of tide and fresh water discharge on the rise of mean water level along the estuary, which remains poorly understood. It is shown that the mean water level is influenced primarily by the tide-river interaction in the tide-dominated region, while it is mainly controlled by the river flow in the upstream part of the estuary.