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Assessment of vulnerabilities and opportunities to restore marsh sediment supply at Nisqually River Delta, west-central Washington

December 8, 2022

A cascading set of hazards to coastal environments is intimately tied to sediment transport and includes the flooding and erosion of shorelines and habitats that support communities, industry, infrastructure, and ecosystem functions (for example, habitats critical to fisheries). This report summarizes modeling and measurement data used to evaluate the sediment budget of the Nisqually River Delta, the vulnerability of the largest estuary restoration project in Puget Sound at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, and the role of coastal hydrodynamics and potential restoration alternatives for recovering sediment delivery to its marshes. The 2009 Brown’s Farm Restoration achieved many goals toward recovering salmon habitat, but the understanding of the delta and restoration area sediment budgets remain poorly quantified. Specifically, quantitative estimates of the amount of sediment delivered to the delta and restored marsh areas, which had subsided in response to historical diking and draining for grazing, were identified as important information needs. Forecasts of potential outcomes of proposed adaptive distributary channel restoration actions were also prioritized to inform potential solutions. These estimates can be used to evaluate whether sufficient sediment is available for marsh recovery downstream from Alder Lake, which traps about 90 percent the Nisqually River sediment load that could reach the delta. Additionally, quantitative sediment information was identified to help prioritize opportunities to recover and maintain the area marshes and guide ecosystem restoration investments across the delta to reduce the vulnerability of the system to drowning under projected sea level rise.  

A coupled, numerical hydrodynamic-sediment transport model and measurements of the sediment load just upstream from the delta were used to evaluate the (1) availability of sediment for marsh recovery, (2) sediment transport dynamics across the estuary, and (3) potential outcomes of distributary reconnection alternatives under existing and projected conditions of streamflow and sea level. Modeling and measurements indicated that the volume of fluvial sediment load reaching and accumulating in the restoration area ranges from 7 to 32 percent and identified that restoration alternatives could recover about an additional 10–12 percent under current and projected sea-level rise by the year 2100. At these rates of sediment delivery, 85–200+ years may be necessary to fill for marsh vegetation development and maintenance. The model also reveals the sensitivity of sediment transport and accumulation to sediment properties, hydrodynamics, and wave conditions. The low sediment accumulation results in large part because of the role of waves in directing sediment transport offshore and challenges of restoring geomorphic processes suited to maintaining habitat structure where opportunity exists or least conflicts with land use. The findings therefore have implications for siting, phasing, and implementing strategies to route and retain sediment. This study shows that opportunities to recover sediment higher in the tidal prism, where a greater hydraulic gradient and gravity could promote progradation and greater sediment retention, may be more effective than alternatives lower in the tidal prism implemented to date and assessed in this study. Furthermore, the modeling indicates that distributary channel restoration also may provide additional benefits to society by reducing flood stage, and therefore, flood hazards surrounding the delta.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Assessment of vulnerabilities and opportunities to restore marsh sediment supply at Nisqually River Delta, west-central Washington
DOI 10.3133/ofr20221088
Authors Eric E. Grossman, Sean C. Crosby, Andrew W. Stevens, Daniel J. Nowacki, Nathan R. vanArendonk, Christopher A. Curran
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2022-1088
Index ID ofr20221088
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

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