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Modeling the effect of water level on the Nueces Delta marsh community

Abstract

Water resource development has decreased water delivery to marshes in the Nueces Delta, Corpus Christi, Texas, USA by 45% since 1983, which has led to marsh degradation. Recent management actions will allow for partial hydrological restoration of the marsh, but there is a need to understand the dynamics and the interactive roles of climate and water cycle changes in order to predict changes in salt marshes in the future. In this study, a model of multi-species competition with respect to hydrological change was developed to perform modeling experiments of the effects of water elevation on development of marsh plant species. Nueces Delta plants were divided into two functional groups: (1) clonal stress tolerant plants (Batis maritima, Distichlis spicata, Monanthcloe littoralis, and Salicornia virginica), and (2) clonal dominants (Borrichia frutescens and Spartina alterniflora). Growth rates were calculated for three climate regimes (wet, moderate, and dry), and in three elevation locations (low, mid, and high marsh). The model predicts reductions in plant cover in both drought and moderate conditions. Marsh plant coverage increases only during wet conditions and when there is space available for plant expansion. It is concluded that changes in areal extent of the marsh largely depend on water flow and elevation, which in turn depends on the quantity of fresh water flowing into the marsh. However, under current climate and water management conditions, the marsh will degrade further.

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Acknowledgements

Many people provided help during this study as it evolved to its current state. A key insight was provided by Michael Rasser (then a doctoral student at The University of Texas Marine Science Institute and now at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) who demonstrated the link between elevation and plant distribution. The marsh digital elevation model, which was critical for implementing our diffusion model, was supplied by Dr. James Gibeaut of the Harte Research Institute. Evan Turner, then a TAMUCC doctoral student, provided useful suggestions and insights as the model was being developed. This work is funded principally by the United States Army Corps of Engineers under contract W9126G-09-T0076, where Marcia Hackett is the project manager. However, additional support was provided by the TAMUCC Texas Research Development Fund, and the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. Additional funding by the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program was used to create the databases that are used in this study.

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Correspondence to Paul A. Montagna.

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Montagna, P.A., Sadovski, A.L., King, S.A. et al. Modeling the effect of water level on the Nueces Delta marsh community. Wetlands Ecol Manage 25, 731–742 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11273-017-9547-x

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Keywords

  • Coastal
  • Climate
  • Estuary
  • GIS
  • Hydrological change
  • Marsh plants
  • Nueces river