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ESEX Commentary

Time to abandon the Manning equation?

Rob Ferguson*
Department of Geography, Durham University, UK
Received 18 May 2010; Revised 25 August 2010; Accepted 2 September 2010
*Correspondence to: Rob Ferguson, Department of Geography, Durham University, UK. E-mail:
River ow is retarded by the frictional resistance of the rough
bed and banks of the channel. For any given channel geom-
etry, channel slope, and water discharge an increase in
frictional resistance causes deeper and slower ow, with con-
sequences for ood risk, aquatic habitat, shear stress and
bed-material transport. Flow resistance is ultimately due to
blocking by, and drag on, topographic irregularities at all
scales from individual pebbles to buildings on a oodplain.
Modern computer power has enabled three-dimensional (3D)
numerical modelling of the physics if sufcient topographic
detail is available (Lane, 2005), but for many geomorphologi-
cal purposes only the bulk ow properties of a reach are
required: cross-sectionally averaged depth, velocity, and shear
stress. The effect of friction on these is quantied through
simple equations which predict mean velocity (V) from
hydraulic radius (R, mean depth in most rivers) and channel
slope (S). There are many such equations, and preferences
differ somewhat between countries and disciplines, but by far
the best-known and most widely-used overall is what in
English-speaking countries is known as the Manning equation:
V R S n =
2 3 1 2
where n is a roughness coefcient of dimension L
T. It is
always calculated in SI units, so in feet-second units the equa-
tion becomes V = 149R
The Manning equation originated as a correction to the
Chzy equation V = C(RS)
. Experience showed that C tended
to vary with water level in a reach, which was inconvenient for
predictive use. In the 1880s Manning and others proposed
that C increased as the one-sixth power of depth. This yields
Equation 1 with n a constant for the reach. The attraction of a
resistance parameter that is invariant with stage is that its value
can be calibrated from ow measurements at one time, then
used to predict past or future conditions (e.g. palaeoood
discharge or bankfull conveyance). This is the classic applica-
tion of the Manning equation. A more recent application is in
dening the friction slope in iterative calculations of water
surface elevation in one-dimensional (1D) (width-averaged)
or two-dimensional (2D) (depth-averaged) numerical ow
models and morphodynamic models. The Manning equation is
the default, or sometimes only, resistance equation in many
such codes. At least one code (HEC-RAS) allows the option of
discharge-dependent n, but in many published applications of
this and other models a xed value of n calibrated to water
levels at one discharge is used for simulations at all places and
times. Still other applications are to situations where ow
resistance cannot be calibrated, such as channel design/
restoration and theoretical work on hydraulic geometry. Users
must then either assign n (or its equivalent in an alternative
resistance law) on the basis of experience or estimate it from
a channel property whose design value is known or which is
part of the set of variables to be solved. Bed-grain size is the
obvious property to use, whilst recognizing that ow resis-
tance depends on more than grain roughness. The most wide-
spread practice is estimate n by relations proposed in the
1920s by Strickler:
n D D 0 047 0 039
where D
is the median surface grain diameter and D
is the
size that is 84% ner. The combination of Equations 1 and 2 is
referred to hereafter as ManningStrickler.
The aimof this commentary is to persuade geomorphologists
that the Manning equation is seldom a good choice for calcu-
lations of bulk owproperties, despite its popularity. It is shown
that n usually decreases signicantly with increasing discharge
in a reach, that ManningStrickler usually underestimates ow
resistance even in high ows, and that these aws have adverse
implications in many geomorphological applications.
A tendency for n to decrease with increasing stage in gravel-
bed rivers was noted by Chow (1959), Sargent (1979), Richards
(1982), and Dingman (2009) amongst others, and Dingman
also mentions the tendency of ManningStrickler to underes-
timate n. But these authors did not display much evidence and
their cautionary comments do not seem to be widely known.
Here strong supporting evidence is presented obtained by
analyzing an extended version of a data compilation used in
Ferguson (2007). It now includes sand-bed rivers as well as
gravel- and boulder-bed reaches and comprises >1000 ow
measurements in >400 reaches. The information comes from
20 published and several unpublished sources; Ferguson
(in press) gives details. The data span an exceptionally wide
range of bed and ow conditions (S = 000001021, D
02800 mm, R = 00415 m, R/D
= 0196000, V =
00347 m s
) but exclude overbank ows and reaches
Earth Surf. Process. Landforms 35, 18731876 (2010)
Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Published online 16 October 2010 in Wiley Online Library
( DOI: 10.1002/esp.2091
signicantly affected by vegetation or woody debris. Values
of n calculated from the measurements represent total ow
resistance, including form drag as well as grain roughness.
To test whether n decreases as discharge (Q) increases in a
reach 65 reaches were selected with four or more ow mea-
surements spanning at least a 10-fold range of Q, Spearmans
rank correlation coefcient was calculated, and one-tailed
signicance tests were performed. The correlation is signi-
cantly positive for one of the three sand-bed reaches with a
sufcient range of measurements, and signicantly negative
for the other two. This probably reects an increase in resis-
tance as dunes grow in amplitude, then a decrease as they
wash out. The correlation is negative in all 62 reaches with
gravel or boulder beds, and signicant (p < 005) in 53 of them.
This is compelling evidence that the Manning equation under-
estimates the extent to which bed roughness is drowned out
at higher stages. The effect is not restricted to small streams:
ve of seven reaches with bankfull discharge in excess of
1000 m
had signicant negative correlations. The ratio of n
at lowest measured Q to n at highest measured Q has a
median of 23 and exceeds 12 in one boulder-bed reach.
Figure 1 shows examples of the stage dependence of n in
different channel styles. In gravel-bed rivers the reduction is
generally strongest from low to moderate ow, and n some-
times becomes asymptotically constant at high Q, though not
at any consistent value of submergence (R/D
). This pattern
implies that when estimating bankfull discharge or recon-
structing palaeoood discharge n should be calibrated at the
highest available stage, and/or that allowance should be made
for its expected decrease (as is routinely done by UK consult-
ants when predicting ood inundation: S.N. Lane, personal
communication, May 2010). Conversely, using a high-ow n
could give misleading predictions of low-ow ecological
habitat. Implications of the stage dependence of n for geomor-
phological modelling are discussed later.
To test the accuracy of predicting n from grain size the
highest ow in each reach (usually almost bankfull) was
selected and the n value calculated from ow measurements
was compared with the value predicted by Equation 2.
Figure 2(A) shows that measured n nearly always exceeds the
Strickler value, by about a factor of two on average. Manning
Strickler therefore tends to exaggerate near-bankfull convey-
ance, and by implication will be even more biased in low-ow
conditions. The likely cause of the bias is that the Strickler
relation was tted to relatively deep ows over near-uniform
beds with less form resistance than many natural rivers.
Ferguson (in press) shows that increasing the coefcient in
Equation 1 does not eliminate the problem, whose root cause
is the assumption of a 1/6 power relation in all circumstances.
Figure 2(B) shows that the discrepancy ratio increases system-
atically once relative submergence declines below about 10
to 20, i.e. in situations where obstacle clasts and other bed
structures become important, and Figures 2(A) and 2(B) both
show bigger discrepancies in ow over coarse sand (which
typically develops dunes) than ne/medium sand (which
only develops ripples). Form resistance in gravel-bed rivers is
usually least in deep rivers with fairly ne beds, which may
explain the relatively better performance of the Strickler
relation in this part of Figure 2(A).
There are alternatives to the Manning and ManningStrickler
equations which better represent within- and between-reach
variation in resistance. Ferguson (in press) used the present
data set to test how well different equations reproduce mea-
sured velocity (or equivalently discharge). Predictions using
ManningStrickler are accurate to within a factor of two (i.e.
between half and twice the measured value) in only 52% of
cases, whereas the other ve equations that were tested
achieve this in 7382% of cases. One of the best performers is
the next most widely-used resistance law after Manning: the
logarithmic law using a roughness height scaled on a multiple
of D
(e.g. Hey, 1979). Another is the variable-power equation
proposed by Ferguson (2007); this is asymptotic to Manning
Strickler in deep ows but deviates progressively from it in
ows shallower than R/D
20. Figure 2(B) shows that it gives
an excellent t to the present data, apart from a small bias
for ows over coarse sand. ManningStrickler is even out-
performed on average by three purely empirical relations
without any roughness parameter. That of Jarrett (1984) esti-
mates n from slope rather than grain size, but does not work
well for sand-bed rivers; those of Bjerklie et al. (2005) and
Lpez et al. (2007) are unconstrained regressions of V on R
and S, and work well except for very steep shallow streams.
The discussion so far has emphasized how the Manning
equation with n estimated from grain size or calibrated at a
single ow can generate erroneous predictions of how velocity
and discharge vary with ow stage. Equally, it can lead to
erroneous predictions of how ow depth varies in space and
time, particularly in relatively small and/or steep rivers and
streams. This has important implications for many kinds of
geomorphological modelling. For example, width-averaged
bedload transport rates are normally predicted from shear
stress as estimated from the depth-slope product. Bedload
transport equations are highly non-linear, so even quite small
differences in estimated depth can lead to big differences
in predicted transport rate. By extension, morphodynamic
models which incorporate the feedback from bedload trans-
port to bed elevation and grain-size distribution are also
sensitive to how ow resistance is represented. To illustrate this
0.01 0.1 1 10 100 1000 10000
Q (m

East Prairie
Figure 1. Examples of variation in Mannings n with discharge in channels of different character: large (Bow River; Kellerhals et al., 1972) and small
(Ruakokapatuna; Hicks and Mason, 1991) gravel-bed pool-rife reaches, small cobble/boulder cascade reach (River Ashop; Lee and Ferguson,
2002), and small sand-bed river (East Prairie; Kellerhals et al., 1972).
Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Earth Surf. Process. Landforms, Vol. 35, 18731876 (2010)
the 1D simulation by Hoey and Ferguson (1994) of the
development of downstream ning by selective transport and
deposition along Allt Dubhaig in Scotland was repeated, this
time using different resistance laws but keeping all other equa-
tions and boundary conditions constant. Table I shows that the
outcomes are appreciably different. The ManningStrickler law
gives much more downstream ning than the logarithmic law
used in the original paper. This is because the Strickler relation
gives lower resistance, depth and shear stress so that the
sediment transported from proximal sections and deposited
distally is ner-grained on average than in the log-law run.
Predictions with xed values of n depend on whether the
resistance is appropriate for the proximal or distal part of the
reach. This example is for a stream with relatively low submer-
gence (R/D
less than ve proximally, 2030 distally). In large
low-gradient gravel-bed rivers with R/D
~100 there is far less
difference between the mean depths predicted by alternative
resistance laws. Thus Ferguson and Church (2009) were able
to use xed n in a 1D morphodynamic model of lower Fraser
River in western Canada, which has similar bed grain sizes to
Allt Dubhaig but cross-sectionally averaged depths of 515 m
at high ow. But problems still arise in 2D models of rivers like
this using xed n: Li et al. (2008) found that Manning with n
calibrated to ood levels in the same reach of Fraser River gave
excessive shear stresses and transport rates in shallow ows
near bars and banks.
Another application in which results depend on the choice of
resistance law is rational regime theory, which seeks to explain
downstream hydraulic geometry from physical principles.
0.0001 0.001
0.01 0.1 1

0.1 1 10 1000 10000 100 100000


Variable-power equation
Figure 2. Tests of the Strickler relation. (A) Plot shows how measured values of Mannings n vary with grain size, for comparison with the Strickler
relation (Equation 2; sloping straight line in plot). Only the highest ow in each reach is plotted. The irregular line joins medians of measured n and
for half-phi intervals of D
. (B) Plot shows how the ratio of measured n to Strickler n varies with relative submergence R/D
. The curve is what
is predicted using the variable-power resistance law proposed by Ferguson (2007). This gure is available in colour online at
Table I. Sensitivity of morphodynamic simulations to choice of resis-
tance law
Resistance law
(mm) Flow depth (m) Mannings n
26 km
0 km
26 km
0 km
26 km
log, k
= 31D
26 050 053 0050 0034
ManningStrickler 13 034 048 0029 0022
Manning, n = 0050 28 049 070 0050 0050
Manning, n = 0034 17 038 061 0034 0034
Predictions of downstream ning along 26 km of Allt Dubhaig after
steady near-bankfull ow (8 m
) for one model year. Other model
details as in Hoey and Ferguson (1994). Proximal D
is xed at
86 mm.
Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Earth Surf. Process. Landforms, Vol. 35, 18731876 (2010)
Many different combinations of assumptions have been made
(Eaton, in press) but a resistance law is always required and
ManningStrickler is often chosen. Sensitivity to the choice will
depend on the other assumptions made, but we can get some
idea by considering a very simple regime theory for gravel-bed
rivers. Assume that (1) bankfull dimensionless shear stress is
approximately the same in all reaches, as proposed by Andrews
(1984) and endorsed by several later authors; (2) resistance
follows the general power lawV = a(gRS)
; and (3) slope
is related to discharge by S (Q/g
, which Parker et al.
(2007) found was a good t to a large and diverse data set.
These assumptions imply the width relation w Q S
, so
with grain size xed the ManningStrickler law (b = 1/6) gives
w Q
. But b = 1/2 (a better t to smaller rivers) gives w
, and b = 1 (appropriate for very steep shallow streams)
gives w Q
. The outcome is therefore quite sensitive to how
resistance is specied.
Is it time, then, for geomorphologists to abandon the
Manning and Strickler equations? The evidence presented here
suggests these traditional standbys are moderately reliable for
width-averaged calculations of ow in deep rivers with plane
gravel beds or rippled medium/ne sand beds, but not for dune
beds or for shallower ows over gravel, cobbles or boulders. In
the latter case, if roughness is to be estimated from grain size
the logarithmic and variable-power equations are preferable. If
high ows in small coarse-bedded rivers are to be predicted or
reconstructed from a low-ow calibration, almost any alterna-
tive will be safer than Manning with xed n. In theoretical
work the resistance law should be appropriate for the expected
range of relative submergence, and once again a logarithmic
or variable-power equation will often be the safest choice. In
summary, the Manning and Strickler equations should be used
with caution and should cease to be default assumptions in
geomorphological research and practice.
AcknowledgmentsThis paper has beneted from constructive
reviews by Steve Darby and Andrew Nicholas and from Stuart Lanes
editorial advice.
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Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Earth Surf. Process. Landforms, Vol. 35, 18731876 (2010)