Sediment fingerprinting: Review of the method and future improvements for allocating nonpoint source pollution

Charles M. Davis, James F. Fox

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

147 Scopus citations


Sediment fingerprinting has been developed by researchers over the past three decades for watershed sediment transport research. Sediment fingerprinting is a method to allocate sediment nonpoint source pollutants in a watershed through the use of natural tracer technology with a combination of field data collection, laboratory analyses of sediments, and statistical modeling techniques. The method offers a valuable tool for total maximum daily load assessment to aid in developing efficient remediation strategies for pollution in watersheds. We review the methodological steps of sediment fingerprinting including classification of sediment sources in a watershed, identification of unique tracers for each sediment source, representation of sediment sources and sinks using field sampling, accounting for sediment and tracer fate during transport from source to sink, and utilization of an unmixing model to allocate sediment sources. This review places additional emphasis upon tracers used to discriminate sediment sources during past studies performed on different continents and across different physiogeographic regions. Review and analysis of tracer dependence upon watershed variables provides an additional resource for tracer selection to the community. Finally, future improvements needed for sediment fingerprinting are discussed in order to practically apply the technology for sediment nonpoint source pollution allocation within the context of total maximum daily load assessments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)490-504
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Environmental Engineering
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2009


  • Nonpoint pollution
  • Probe instruments
  • Rivers
  • Sediment transport
  • Statistics
  • Water quality
  • Watersheds

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Civil and Structural Engineering


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