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2023 Coastal master plan: ICM-wetlands – Submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) updates

July 1, 2023

Submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) provides critical structural habitat for valuable nekton and wildlife species across coastal ecosystems and can buffer the negative effects of land loss. Landscape change and restoration efforts across coastal Louisiana can impact the occurrence, coverage, and species assemblages of SAV, and changes to these foundational species can have cascading impacts across food webs. To support the 2023 Coastal Master Plan efforts, a unique SAV model was developed to assess coverage and occurrence of SAV across aquatic waterbodies in response to environmental variables evaluated.

This effort created a spatial model describing the probability of presence of SAV across the study area in response to changing conditions over the modeled time period. To develop the initial coverage data layer, we used remotely sensed Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) and modified Normalized Difference Water Index (mNDWI) data from 2015-2018 to identify areas containing variable vegetation and water spectral reflectance. Key environmental variables evaluated included total suspended sediments (TSS), salinity, and physical exposure. Seasonal estimates for TSS and salinity were used, as research indicates that seasonal environmental variability is a significant driver for SAV establishment. Seasonal salinity was derived from Coast-wide Reference Monitoring Station (CRMS) data, and seasonal TSS was estimated from hyperspectral imagery. Estimates of physical exposure have previously been provided by calculating fetch (the distance across water over which waves can propagate), but this proved to be too computationally intensive to be feasible, and we found distance to land to be a reasonable proxy for exposure. To represent geographic conditions and historical factors influences on SAV establishment and occurrence (e.g., variables too numerous and complex to model) we developed a basin variable that served as a proxy for complex historical, or prior, conditions, determined by the forested, fresh, intermediate, brackish, or saline (FFIBS) score. The final model included spring TSS, spring salinity, distance to land, and the basin prior.

The model performed well for the area evaluated, correctly classifying SAV (as present or absent) 89% of the time (Kappa = 580). SAV probability of presence responded as expected to change in these environmental variables, with likelihood of occurrence decreasing in response to increasing spring TSS, spring salinity, and distance to land. However, the model was more accurate at predicting absence (true negative = 0.940) than predicting presence (true positive = 0.626), suggesting that the scale of the model may limit the ability to predict presence. Moreover, the simplicity of the model limited the accuracy in highly dynamic environments, for example near the outflow of diversions or areas of significant changes in salinity or TSS. Through incorporating underwater communities like SAV, this master plan provides a holistic view of coastal change and restoration. To create healthy ecological structure and function in wetland habitats, the submergent communities must be considered alongside the emergent habitats. As the benefits of SAV are increasingly recognized, both here in Louisiana and beyond, SAV restoration and the use of SAV communities in assessing and improving ecological condition are becoming more common.

Publication Year 2023
Title 2023 Coastal master plan: ICM-wetlands – Submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) updates
Authors Kristin DeMarco, Donald Schoolmaster, Brady Couvillion
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Index ID 70247715
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Wetland and Aquatic Research Center