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TIDAL INFLUENCE ON SEDIMENTATION PROCESSES


OF THE MAHAKAM DELTA, EAST KALIMANTAN
Salahuddin Husein
Geological Engineering Department, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta 55281
ABSTRACT
The modern Mahakam Delta has long been classified as a mixed fluvial and tide-dominated prograding
delta. The delta plain has a lobate, fan-shaped morphology with a network of distributaries and estuaries.
Previous studies which were mainly focused on sedimentary characteristics indicate that tidal features are
not restricted to the channel mouths.
This study focuses on the dynamics of the tide and its influence on the sediment distribution.
Hydrodynamic measurements were systematically taken at 22 locations for complete spring and neap
tidal cycles, along with 328 bottom grab sediment samples and a few shallow cores. Sand covers the
bottom of the distributaries at the delta apex and gradually fines seaward but does not extend to the
channel mouths. Mud dominates the offshore, the estuaries and the distal reaches of the distributaries.
Sand and mud couplets are common upstream to at least the delta apex. An abundant, diverse assemblage
of benthonic marine organisms was recovered as much as 20 km upstream in the distributaries. The
hydrodynamic measurements indicate that tidal processes strongly control sedimentation throughout the
distributaries and even upstream of the delta apex. Tidal stratification occurs dynamically and influences
the bedload transport that commonly takes place during spring tide but not during neap tide, which later
suggests that the sand and mud couplets reflect spring-neap variations.
This study suggests that the Mahakam Delta is indeed a mixed fluvial and tide-dominated system but has
been recently transgressed. Fluvial dominance is constrained to the upper reaches of the active
distributaries and tides are the most important processes on the delta. The tidal processes control the
distribution of the potential reservoir in the delta plain and significantly decrease the reservoir quality.
INTRODUCTION
Since the early 1970s, several sedimentological
studies have been carried out on the modern
Mahakam delta by a number of workers. The
general sedimentology and modern processes of
the delta were studied by Allen et al. (1976),
Gastaldo et al. (1995), Allen and Chambers (1998)
and Storms et al. (2005). Those studies indicate
that the delta exhibits characteristic features of
both fluvial and tidal processes, that tidal features
are not restricted to the channel mouths. This
study focuses on the dynamics of the tide and its
influence on the sediment distribution.
Delta Morphology
The delta plain of the Mahakam Delta has a lobate,
fan-shaped morphology and comprises an area of

about 2800 km2, which is about 60 % subaerial


and 40 % subaqueous (Figure 1). It extends about
50 km from the delta apex to the coastline and
exhibits an extremely gentle slope of about 0.06
m/km. It is densely vegetated with tropical rain
forest in the supratidal areas near the delta apex
and Nipah palm and mangroves on the intertidal
areas (Allen et al., 1976).
The delta plain is dissected by numerous
distributaries and estuaries. The distributaries are
relatively straight channels and exhibit 7 to 20 m
deep and 400 to 1300 m wide. The estuaries have
similar depths to the distributaries at 8 to 23 m
deep and are characterized by sinuous and flaring
channels. Those channels can be grouped into 3
distinct geographic areas (Allen et al., 1976): a
northern area that consists of 3 distributaries and 3
estuaries; a central area that consists only of 2

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estuaries; and a southern area that consists of 4


distributaries and 3 estuaries (Figure 1). Intertidal
bars generally occur near the channel mouths;
they are commonly perpendicular and attached to
the shoreline, although some are detached and
exhibit a triangular shape.
The gentle slope persists offshore as a subaqueous
delta plain (Orton and Reading, 1993) to a water
depth of 5 m where it abruptly increases to 1.0-2.5
o
on the delta front. There are several channels on
the seabed that are contiguous to adjacent
distributaries (Figure 1). The delta front appears to
be very stable with no evidence of gravity-driven
mass-movement features (Roberts and Sydow,
2003). The subaqueous delta plain, delta front and
prodelta comprises an area of about 5500 km2.
Hydrodynamic Setting
The modern Mahakam delta formed under
conditions of low wave energy, low to medium
tide ranges, and a large but non-flooding fluvial
discharge (Allen and Chambers, 1998). The delta
is fed by the Mahakam River which has a 75,000
km2 drainage basin that extends into the central
Borneo highlands (Figure 1). The climate is
equatorial, with only a slight monsoonal effect,
and temperatures remain between 26 and 300C
(Allen and Chambers, 1998). The annual rainfall
varies between 4000-5000 mm in the central
highlands and 2000-3000 mm near the coast
(Schuettrumpf, 1986). Large seasonal variations
in river discharge occur, with peak flow in the
months of March to June (SE monsoon) and
November to December (NW monsoon) when the
inland rainfall is high. Floods apparently never
occur on the delta, even at peak fluvial discharges,
because a large lake system upstream of the delta
absorbs any excess flow (Allen and Chambers,
1998).
Wave energy is low due to the limited fetch
within Makassar Strait, with the largest waves
approaching from the SE. Fourteen km offshore,
observed average wave height is 0.3 m with a
period of 6 seconds and maximum wave height is
0.6 m (Total, 1986). Littoral drift is minimal
(Allen and Chambers, 1998) and storms are rare
events (Roberts and Sydow, 2003).
Tides in the Strait of Makassar are semi-diurnal

with a marked diurnal inequality. Tidal range


varies from less than 0.5 m during neap tides to
2.9 m during spring tides, with an average range
of 1.2 m. Tides affect the entire delta plain and
delta front, and normally influence the river as
much as 160 km upstream from the coastline
(Schuettrumpf, 1986). During extremely dry
periods, tidal fluctuations were observed as far as
360 km upriver.
Sedimentary Facies
In general, sand covers the bottom of the
distributaries and gradually fines seaward, but
does not extend to the channel mouths, and the
subaqueous delta plain is dominated by mud
(Figure 2). The southern area is sandier than the
northern area, while mud is predominant in the
central area. The seaward limit of sand
distribution approximately matches the seaward
limit of mixed fresh-water hardwood and palm
forest in the subaerial delta plain (Figure 2).
Downstream, sand is gradually replaced by mud
and Nipah palms become the dominant vegetation.
Five sedimentary facies comprise the sediment
distribution, which are Medium Sand, Muddy
Fine Sand, Bioturbated Muddy Fine Sand, Sandy
Mud, and Mud (Husein and Lambiase, 2005).
In addition to these five facies, detrital organic
debris is also widely distributed along the high
tide shoreline. These deposits occur as peat
beaches and beach ridges (Figure 2) that may be
up to 2.5 m thick. They are observed 3 km
upstream and may cover a total surface area up to
50 km2 (Gastaldo et al., 1995).
BEDLOAD TRANSPORT PATTERNS AND
TIDAL CURRENT STRATIFICATION
Bedload Transport Patterns
Hydrodynamic data were collected at 22 stations
in the distributaries and estuaries (Figure 3).
Vertical profiles of current speed and direction,
salinity and turbidity were recorded at 30 minutes
intervals for complete spring and neap tidal cycles.
Current measurements were used to calculate bed
shear stress velocity (u*), which was used to infer
the bed-shear stress (0) (van Rijn, 1990; Brown et
al., 1997). The latter was employed to compute
sediment motion (s), which was charted against

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time and the threshold of motion (cr) (Soulsby,


1997) to get the direction and duration of bedload
transport at a particular site.
In general, most bedload sediment transport
occurs during spring tide. It also occurs during
transitional tides, as long as the tidal range is large
enough ( 1.5 m) to produce significant bed shear
stress. There is a significant downstream decrease
in the duration and rate of bedload transport as
well as a change in the direction of net transport
(Figures 3). Seaward, or downstream, bedload
transport dominates the delta apex and the upper
to middle reaches of distributaries, particularly in
the southern area (Figure 3). On the delta apex,
downstream bedload transport persists for 4 hours,
whilst in the upper reaches of distributaries it lasts
for about 3 hours and in the middle reaches of
distributaries for about 1 hour (Figure 3). In the
lower reaches of distributaries and in the estuaries,
landward, or upstream, net bedload transport is
dominant with a duration of less than 1 hour
(Figure 3). In the upper to middle reaches in the
northern area, upstream bedload transport occurs
as a subordinate phase to downstream bedload
transport and has a duration of less than 1 hour
(Figure 3).
The bedload transport rate in the Mahakam River
is 6.46x10-6 m3/m/s or 5.81x10-3 m3/s (Table 1), or
0.093 m3/m per tidal cycle. On average, about 28
tidal cycles per month or 336 tidal cycles per year,
have tidal ranges larger than 1.5 m. Therefore the
annual bedload transport rate in the Mahakam
River is estimated at 31.24 m3/m/year or 28,118
m3/year (Table 1).
About 21% of the Mahakam River bedload enters
the northern area with a rate of 1.35x10-6 m3/m/s
(Table 1). The other approximately 79% goes to
the southern area. In the upper to middle reaches
of the northern area, the subordinate upstream
bedload transport reduces the net downstream
bedload transport rate (Figure 1). Averaged over a
tidal cycle, the net downstream bedload transport
rate is 9.69x10-3 m3/m per tidal cycle in the upper
reaches which decreases to 2.24x10-3 m3/m per
tidal cycle in the middle reaches (Table 1).
This implies that bedload is deposited in the upper
to middle reaches of the northern area at a rate
7.45x10-3 m3/m per tidal cycle or 2.50 m3/m per

year. All downstream bedload transport ceases


further seaward, causing deposition in the lower
reaches. Upstream bedload transport contributes
2.73x10-9 m3/m per tidal cycle in this area,
yielding a net deposition of 2.24x10-3 m3/m per
tidal cycle or 0.75 m3/m per year.
In the southern area, bedload transport from the
Mahakam River enters multiple distributaries. On
average, sediment transported as bedload is
deposited at a rate 2.70x10-2 m3/m per tidal cycle
or 9.08 m3/m per year in the upper to lower
reaches of the distributaries (Table 1). The
upstream bedload transport deposits 3.69x10-9
m3/m per tidal cycle or 1.24x10-6 m3/m per year in
the lower reaches (Table 1).
In the estuaries of the central area, upstream
bedload transport yields a net depositional rate of
8.21x10-8 m3/m per tidal cycle or 2.76x10-5 m3/m
per year (Table 1). This number is extremely
small compared to the fluvial input from the
Mahakam River, which is 31.24 m3/m per year.
Tidal Current Stratification
Tidal influences on sediment transport are best
illustrated by a downstream distribution of current
profiles along a distributary, which indicates the
occurrence of tidal current stratifications from the
delta apex to channel mouth (Figures 4a to 4d).
Generally they occur during both spring and neap
tides, but more pronounced during neap tides.
They produce bottom upstream, subordinate
reversal currents, mainly at 2 m height from the
bottom at the delta apex to 4 m height near the
channel mouth. As described in the previous subchapter, the presence of the tidal current
stratification reduces bedload transport capacity
and promotes sedimentation of the fluvial
sediment-laden along the middle to lower reaches
of the distributaries.
THE ROLE OF TIDES IN THE MODERN
DEPOSITIONAL PROCESSES
The sediment transport patterns and the facies
distribution indicate that tides are the most
important process on the Mahakam Delta,
although fluvial processes and waves have some
influence. Tidal processes dominance arguably
extends further tens of kilometres upstream above

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the delta apex up to where the fluvial


sedimentation prevails, as evidenced by the
presence of sand and mud couplet in the Medium
Sand facies which was previously observed by
Gastaldo et al. (1995). Tidal processes control
sediment transport in the delta as indicated by
bedload transport that only occurs during spring
tides, which suggests that the sand and mud
couplets reflect spring-neap variations. Tidal
processes also cause fluvial influence to decrease
downstream as evidenced by the decrease in the
downstream magnitude of the net bedload
transport and the fining seaward sediment
distribution (Figures 2, 3). Concurrently, tidal
dominance increases seaward as indicated by the
dominantly upstream net bedload transport in the
lower reaches of the distributaries and in the
estuaries, increasing mud drapes and more
abundant brackish to marine organisms (Figures 2,
3). Turbidity maxima and a lack of sand cause
mud to dominate the lower reaches of
distributaries, where tidal currents rework relic
sand bars (Figures 2, 3).
The bedload transport patterns and the facies
distribution indicate that fluvial influence extends
further downstream in the southern area than in
the northern area (Figures 2, 3), which supports
the contention of Allen and Chambers (1998) that
the distributaries in the southern area are more
active than those in the northern area. The
downstream net bedload transport lasts longer in
the southern area and it transports medium sand to
the middle reaches of the distributaries where the
upstream net bedload transport starts to dominate.
Meanwhile, in the northern area those processes
occur in the upper reaches of the distributaries
where the upstream bedload transport exists as a
subordinate of the shorter net downstream bedload
transport.
Waves have a significant influence mainly on the
southern coastline near the delta front, where they
winnow mud and slightly modify the geometry of
intertidal sand bars (Figure 2). Although their
energy is mostly attenuated on the broad
subaqueous delta plain, waves are still able to
concentrate detrital organic debris along the upper
part of intertidal mud flats to form peat beaches
and beach ridges.

IMPLICATION TO RESERVOIR
The morphology, facies distribution and
hydrodynamics of the Mahakam Delta all suggest
that the delta is presently being transgressed and
modified by marine processes (Husein and
Lambiase, 2005). Bedload transport patterns
indicate that most, if not all, fluvially-derived
sand is being stored onshore in the distributaries,
which is a feature of transgressive systems
according to sequence stratigraphic models (e.g.
Shanley and McCabe, 1993).
In present-day setting where the fluvial sand is
deposited along the distributaries, the lateral bars
are possibly to become continuous reservoirs.
Their geometry commonly are narrow and
rectilinear belts up to 5-10 m thick and 0.5-1.0 km
wide. The range of width/thickness ratio of
individual lateral bar varies from 50 to 100 and is
quite similar to that observed in the Miocene
distributaries (Duval et al, 1992). There is also
possibility to have stacked channel sand bodies
reservoir. Prasetyo (2003) observed a 50 m thick
stacked distributaries sand bodies in the Nilam
Field at the Mahakam Delta province. It filled an
incised valley that has eroded the overlying delta
plain deposit and has a width/thickness ratio of
1:200.
The lateral bars have erosional bases which
overlay prodelta mud and exhibits laterally
accreting deposits (Allen and Chamber, 1998). A
typical succession fill is cross bedded medium
sands to flaser bedding followed by mud-sand
couplets and lenticular bedding, which reflects
gradual
changing
from
river-dominated
distributary channel sand to tide-dominated
distributary channel sand. The sand/mud ratios are
highly variable, ranging from 90:10 to 15:85,
depends on their location with respect to the bars
(Gastaldo et al., 1995). This certain amount of
small scale internal reservoir heterogeneities
could form localized permeability barriers and
result in a lower values of vertical permeability
than in the more massive and cleaner fluvialdominated sand facies. Tidal signatures also
significantly decrease reservoir quality. Trevena et
al (2003) observed in the Attaka Field at the
Mahakam Delta province that the river-dominated
distributary channel sand has average porosity 24
% and median permeability 665 md, while the

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tide-dominated distributary channel sand has


average porosity 26.1 % and median permeability
256 md.

Duval, B.C., de Janvry, G.C. and Loiret, B., 1992.


Detailed
geoscience
reinterpretation
of
Indonesias Mahakam Delta scores. Oil and Gas
Journal, 90, 67-72.

CONCLUSIONS
The main conclusions of the present study are:
1. The Mahakam Delta is indeed a mixed fluvial
and tide-dominated system but tidal processes
are the most important and control
sedimentation throughout the delta plain.
2. Tidal stratification occurs dynamically and
influences the bedload transport that
commonly takes place during spring tide but
not during neap tide, which later suggests that
the sand and mud couplets reflect spring-neap
variations.
3. The delta is being transgressed. Fluviallysupplied sand is being stored onshore in the
distributaries and is not reaching the shoreline
and rich in tidal signatures.
4. The tidal processes control the distribution of
the potential reservoir in the delta plain and
significantly decrease the reservoir quality.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The author wish to thank Total E&P Indonsie,
Total E&P Borneo BV and Universiti Brunei
Darussalam for sponsoring the research, and
Universitas Gadjah Mada for the study leave.
REFERENCES
Allen, G.P. and Chambers, J.L.C., 1998.
Sedimentation in the modern and Miocene
Mahakam
Delta.
Indonesian
Petroleum
Association, 236 pp.
Allen, G.P., Laurier, D., and Thouvenin, J.M.,
1976. Sediment distribution patterns in the
modern Mahakam Delta. Proceedings Indonesian
Petroleum Association, 5th Annual Convention,
159-178.
Brown, J., Colling, A., Park, D., Phillips, J.,
Rothery, D. and Wright, J., 1997. Waves, tides
and shallow-water processes. In: G. Bearman (ed.).
Volumes on oceanography. The Open University,
Oxford, 187 pp.

Gastado, R.A., Allen, G.P., and Huc, A.Y., 1995.


The tidal character of fluvial sediments of the
modern Mahakam River Delta, Kalimantan,
Indonesia. In: B.W. Flemming and A. Bartholona
(eds.). Tidal signatures in modern and ancient
sediments.
International
Association
of
Sedimentologists. Special Publication 24, 171-181.
Husein, S. and Lambiase, J.J., 2005. Modern
Sediment Dynamics of the Mahakam Delta,
Proceedings Indonesian Petroleum Association,
30th Annual Convention, 367-379.
Orton, G.J. and Reading, G.H., 1993. Variability
of deltaic processes in terms of sediment supply,
with particular emphasis on grain size.
Sedimentology, 40, 475-512.
Prasetyo, B., 2003. Facies mapping and reservoir
potential of the G58 interval using 3D seismic
data in Nilam Field, Sanga-sanga PSC, Indonesia.
Universiti Brunei Darussalam, unpubl. M.Sc.
thesis, 86 pp.
Roberts, H. and Sydow, J., 2003. Late Quaternary
stratigraphy and sedimentology of the offshore
Mahakam Delta, East Kalimantan (Indonesia). In:
F.H. Sidi, D. Nummedal, P. Imbert, H. Darman
and H.W. Posamentier (eds.). Tropical deltas of
Southeast Asia, sedimentology, stratigraphy and
petroleum geology. SEPM Special Publication 76,
125-145.
Schuettrumpf,
R.,
1986.
Hydrological
monography of the Mahakam River. Technical
Cooperation for Area Development, Kutai District,
East Kalimantan.
Shanley K.W. and McCabe P.J., 1993. Alluvial
architecture in a sequence stratigraphic framework:
a case history from the upper Cretaceous of
southern Utah. In: S.S. Flint and I.D. Bryant (eds.).
The Geological Modelling of Hydrocarbon
Reservoirs and Outcrop Analogues, IAS Special
Publication 15, 21-56.

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Soulsby, R., 1997. Dynamics of marine sands: a


manual for practical applications. Thomas Telford,
London, 249 pp.

Van Rijn, L.C., 1990, Principles of fluid flow and


surface waves in rivers, estuaries, seas and oceans,
Aqua Publications, 335 pp.

Storms, J.E.A., Hoogendoorn, R.M., Dam, R.A.C.,


Hoitink, A.J.F. and Kroonenberg, S.B., 2005.
Late-Holocene evolution of the Mahakam delta,
East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Sedimentary Geology,
180, 149-166.

Trevana, A.S., Partono, Y.J. and Clark, T., 2003.


Reservoir heterogeneity of Miocene-Pliocene
deltaic sandstones at Attaka and Serang fields,
Kutei Basin, offshore East Kalimantan, Indonesia.
In: F.H. Sidi, D. Nummedal, P. Imbert, H.
Darman and H.W. Posamentier (eds.). Tropical
deltas of Southeast Asia: sedimentology,
stratigraphy and petroleum geology. SEPM
Special Publication 76, 235-254.

Total, 1986. Metereological and oceanographical


campaign. Total internal report, 67 pp.

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Station
1. Mahakam River (Mhk)
Northern area:
3. Bru-2
4. Kli-1
6. Kli-3
8. Ilu
9. Ptn-1
10. Ptn-2
11. Ptn-3
Central area:
12. Byr-1
Southern area:
14. Byt-1
15. Byt-2
16. Byt-3
17. Ulu-1
19. Ulu-3
20. Pdg

Downstream
Channel
width (m)
a1
a2
b1
900
6.46E-06 5.81E-03 9.30E-02
1000
500
1100
800
400
550
1100

b2
83.69

1.35E-06 6.73E-04 9.69E-03

4.85

6.21E-07 2.49E-04 2.24E-03

0.89

550
400
500
700
450
1400
700

a1

Upstream
a2
b1

2.63

3.10E-06 2.17E-03 3.91E-02

27.35

Net Transport
c1
c2
9.30E-02
28,118

2.12E-12
4.82E-10
1.96E-13
1.06E-13
2.23E-11
1.14E-13
1.14E-13

2.12E-09
2.41E-07
2.15E-10
8.45E-11
8.91E-09
6.29E-11
1.26E-10

7.63E-09
8.67E-07
3.53E-10
1.9E-10
4.01E-08
2.06E-10
2.06E-10

7.63E-06
4.34E-04
3.88E-07
1.52E-07
1.60E-05
1.13E-07
2.27E-07

-7.63E-09
9.69E-03
-3.53E-10
-1.90E-10
2.24E-03
-2.06E-10
-2.06E-10

2.56E-03
1628
1.30E-04
5.11E-05
301
3.81E-05
7.61E-05

4.56E-11

2.51E-08

8.21E-08

4.52E-05 -8.21E-08

1.52E-02

1.50E-02
2.74E-06
4.97E-06 -7.10E-09
5.85E-03
4.03E-07 -2.88E-10
3.91E-02

2014
4.61E-01
1.67E-03
885
1.35E-04
9189

1.67E-06 6.66E-04 1.50E-02


6.00
7.62E-10 3.81E-07 2.74E-06 1.37E-03
8.13E-07 3.66E-04 5.85E-03

b2

1.97E-12

1.38E-09

7.1E-09

8E-14

1.12E-10

2.88E-10

TABLE 1: Summary of bedload transport rates. a1: rate in m3/m/s; a2: rate in m3/s and is obtained by
multiplying a1 with the channel width; b1: rate in m3/m per tidal cycle; b2: rate in m3/tidal cycle and is
obtained by multiplying b1 with the channel width; c1: net transport rate in m3/m/s (a negative sign and
light blue colour indicates upstream direction); c2: annual net transport rate in m3/year.
Station numbers refer to Figure 3 for locations.

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100 km

25
5

Kutai
Lakes

Northern
area

50

10 km
e
Mahakam
Delta

Mahakam River
Drainage Basin

d
e

d
Subaqueous
delta plain
Delta plain
e
e
Central area
d
d

d
d

Delta
front

25
5

50

Tropical lowland rain forest


Southern area

Mixed hardwood and palm forest


Nipah swamp
Mangrove swamp

FIGURE 1: Location and morphology of the Mahakam Delta, showing the morphological zonations
(delta plain, subaqueous delta plain and delta front) as well as distributaries (d) and estuaries (e).

Landward limit of benthic marine organisms

Peat beaches

Mud

Sandy mud

Bioturbated fine sand

Fine sand

- 25 m

-5m

Medium sand

10 km

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FIGURE 2: Block diagram of sedimentary facies on the Mahakam Delta. Bathymetry was compiled
from echo sounding profiles; the offshore break in slope is in approximately 5 m of water. The red dotted
line indicates the upstream limit of benthic marine organisms.

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Scale
1 hour

7
2
6

10

11

14
20
12
17

13

15

16

18

22

19
21

N
10 km

FIGURE 3: Bedload transport patterns. The blue arrows indicate net downstream bedload transport and
the red arrows indicate net upstream bedload transport. Arrow length is proportional to transport duration.
Numbers in yellow circles refer to the the measurement stations in Table 1.

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FIGURE 4a: Bed shear stress and current velocity profiles at the delta apex, location is Station #1 (see
Figure 3). Red box indicates bedload transport occurrence.

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FIGURE 4b: Bed shear stress and current velocity profiles at the upper reaches,
location is Station #14 (see Figure 3).

FIGURE 4c: Bed shear stress and current velocity profiles at the middle reaches, location is Station #15
(see Figure 3).

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FIGURE 4d: Bed shear stress and current velocity profiles at the lower reaches, location is Station #16
(see Figure 3). Note that the bedload transport (red box) also occurs during neap tide since the
measurement was done at near-neap condition or transition from spring to neap.