, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp 425-438

Pattern and process of land loss in the Mississippi Delta: A Spatial and temporal analysis of wetland habitat change

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Abstract

An earlier investigation (Turner 1997) concluded that most of the coastal wetland loss in Louisiana was caused by the effects of canal dredging, that loss was near zero in the absence of canals, and that land loss had decreased to near zero by the late 1990s. This analysis was based on a 15-min quadrangle (approximately 68,000 ha) scale that is too large to isolate processes responsible for small-scale wetland loss and too small to capture those responsible for large-scale loss. We conducted a further evaluation of the relationship between direct loss due to canal dredging and all other loss from 1933–1990 using a spatial scale of 4,100 ha that accurately captures local land-loss processes. Regressions of other wetland loss on canal area (i.e., direct loss) for the Birdfoot, Terrebonne, and Calcasieu basins were not significant. Positive relationships were found for the Breton (r2=0.675), Barataria (r2=0.47), and Mermentau (r2=0.35) basins, indicating that the extent of canals is significantly related to wetland loss in these basins. A significant negative relationship (r2=0.36) was found for the Atchafalaya coastal basin which had statistically lower loss rates than the other basins as a whole. The Atchafalaya area receives direct inflow of about one third of the Mississippi discharge. When the data were combined for all basins, 9.2% of the variation in other wetland loss was attributable to canals. All significant regressions intercepted the y-axis at positive loss values indicating that some loss occurred in the absence of canals. Wetland loss did not differ significantly from the coast inland or between marsh type. We agree with Turner that canals are an important agent in causing wetland loss in coastal Louisiana, but strongly disagree that they are responsible for the vast majority of this loss. We conclude that wetland loss in the Mississippi delta is an ongoing complex process involving several interacting factors and that efforts to create and restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands must emphasize riverine inputs of freshwater and sediments.