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Performance measures for a Mississippi River reintroduction into the forested wetlands of Maurepas Swamp

June 9, 2017

The use of freshwater diversions (river reintroductions) from the Mississippi River as a restoration tool to rehabilitate Louisiana coastal wetlands has been promoted widely since the first such diversion at Caernarvon became operational in the early 1990s. To date, aside from the Bonnet Carré Spillway (which is designed and operated for flood control), there are only four operational Mississippi River freshwater diversions (two gated structures and two siphons) in coastal Louisiana, and they all target salinity intrusion, shellfish management, and (or) the enhancement of the integrity of marsh habitat. River reintroductions carry small sediment loads for various design reasons, but they can be effective in delivering fresh­water to combat saltwater intrusion and increase the delivery of nutrients and suspended fine-grained sediments to receiving wetlands. River reintroductions may be an ideal restoration tool for targeting coastal swamp forest habitat; much of the area of swamp forest habitat in coastal Louisiana is undergo­ing saltwater intrusion, high rates of submergence, and lack of riverine flow leading to reduced concentrations of important nutrients and suspended sediments, which sustain growth and regeneration, help to aerate swamp soils, and remove toxic compounds from the rhizosphere.

The State of Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restora­tion Authority (CPRA) has made it a priority to establish a small freshwater river diversion into a coastal swamp forest located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, to reintroduce Mississippi River water to Maurepas Swamp. While a full understanding of how a coastal swamp forest will respond to new freshwater loading through a Mississippi River reintroduction is unknown, this report provides guidance based on the available literature for establishing performance measures that can be used for evaluating the effectiveness of a Mississippi River reintroduction into the forested wetlands of Maurepas Swamp (project PO-29 of the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act) and aid in adaptive management of the project. PO-29 is a small river reintroduction in scope, and through its operation, it will provide information about the feasibility and reasonable expectations for future river reintroduction projects targeting coastal swamp forests in Louisiana.

Located near Garyville, Louisiana, the Mississippi River reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp project is being designed to deliver a maximum flow of 57 cubic meters per second (m3/s) (or about 2,000 cubic feet per second [ft3/s]) directly from the river, but with a maximum flow through the outflow channel of 42 m3/s (or 1,500 ft3/s) available for at least half of the year. The river reintroduction will divert Mississippi River water through channelized flow and surface water to impact approximately 16,583 hectares (ha) of wetland habitat, much of which is swamp forest and swamp forest transitioning into marsh habitat. The Mississippi River reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp and associated outfall management features collectively should facilitate connectivity of water between the Mississippi River and the entire project area.

At any given location, hydrologic connectivity should occur at intervals between twice yearly and once per decade, and hydrologic management must allow the potential for water drawdowns to foster tree regeneration every 3–13 years. The river reintroduction is also anticipated to maintain salinity in swamp forests dominated by Taxodium distichum (baldcypress) to less than 1.3 practical salinity units (psu) and maintain salinity in mixed baldcypress and Nyssa aquatica (water tupelo) swamp forests to less than 0.8 psu. The river reintroduction should promote soil surface elevation gains of 8–9 millimeters per year (mm/yr) (range, 4.9–12.1 mm/yr) to offset relative sea-level rise and keep total river water nitrate (NO3-) loading into Maurepas Swamp to about 11.25 grams (g) of nitrogen (N) per square meter per year (m-2 yr-1 ) (range, 7.1–15.4 g N m-2 yr-1) to promote near complete uptake of NO3- by the vegetation in the receiving wetlands and reduce impacts to water quality in adjacent and connected water ways (for example, Blind River) and Lake Maurepas. With these performance measures maintained over time, we further expect swamp forest stands to realize improvements in stand density index of as much as 30–45 percent of maximum values for the stand type while maintaining an overstory leaf area index of 2.0–2.9 square meters per square meter or higher as swamp forests recover from decades of low flow, saltwater intrusion, reduced nutrients, and surface elevation deficits associated with isolation from the Mississippi River.

Associated with these performance measures are two major uncertainties: (1) an assumption that we can rely on existing data, literature, and modeling from coastal swamp forests to establish these performance measures and (2) an unknown time frame for evaluating these performance mea­sures. Some performance measures can be assessed quickly, such as those associated with hydrology and nutrient uptake. Some performance measures, such as changes in soil surface elevation and forest structural integrity, could take longer to assess. Once performance measures are assessed across dif­ferent time scales, however, adjustments to operations of the Mississippi River reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp can be swift. The proposed performance measures are ideal targets, mostly without specific consideration of practical, operational constraints. The measures are intended to be the basis by which adaptive management of the diversion structures can be evaluated. The measures are defined without regard to current conditions so that project success can be evaluated on net outcomes rather than specific change from existing condi­tions. We expect that the Mississippi River reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp will slow degradation and extend the life of the swamp for decades to centuries.

Publication Year 2017
Title Performance measures for a Mississippi River reintroduction into the forested wetlands of Maurepas Swamp
DOI 10.3133/sir20175036
Authors Ken W. Krauss, Gary P. Shaffer, Richard F. Keim, Jim L. Chambers, William B. Wood, Stephen B. Hartley
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2017-5036
Index ID sir20175036
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Wetland and Aquatic Research Center