The three-dimensional UnTRIM San Francisco Bay–Delta model was applied to simulate tidal hydrodynamics and salinity in the San Francisco Estuary (estuary) using an unstructured grid. We compared model predictions to observations of water level, tidal flow, current speed, and salinity collected at 137 locations throughout the estuary. A quantitative approach based on multiple model assessment metrics was used to evaluate the model's accuracy for each comparison. These comparisons demonstrate that the model accurately predicted water level, tidal flow, and salinity during a 3-year simulation period that spanned a large range of flow and salinity conditions. The model is therefore suitable for detailed investigation of circulation patterns and salinity distributions in the estuary.
The model was used to investigate the location, and spatial and temporal extent of the low-salinity zone (LSZ), defined by salinity between 0.5 and 6 psu. We calculated X2, the distance up the axis of the estuary to the daily-averaged 2-psu near-bed salinity, and the spatial extent of the LSZ for each day during the 3-year simulation. The location, area, volume, and average depth of the low-salinity zone varied with X2; however this variation was not monotonic and was largely controlled by the geometry of the estuary.
We used predicted daily X2 values and the corresponding daily Delta outflow for each day during the 3-year simulation to develop a new equation to relate X2 to Delta outflow. This equation provides a conceptual improvement over previous equations by allowing the time constant for daily changes in X2 to vary with flow conditions. This improvement resulted in a smaller average error in X2 prediction than previous equations. These analyses demonstrate that a well-calibrated three-dimensional (3-D) hydrodynamic model is a valuable tool for investigating the salinity distributions in the estuary, and their influence on the distribution and abundance of physical habitat.