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Observations of coastal circulation, waves, and sediment transport along West Maui, Hawaiʻi (November 2017– March 2018), and modeling effects of potential watershed restoration on decreasing sediment loads to adjacent coral reefs

February 22, 2023

Terrestrial sediment discharging from watersheds off West Maui, Hawaiʻi, has been documented as a primary stressor to local coral reefs, causing coral reef health to decline. The U.S. Geological Survey acquired and analyzed physical oceanographic and sedimentologic field data off the coast of West Maui to calibrate and validate physics-based, numerical hydrodynamic and sediment transport models of the study area developed by Deltares. These models simulated terrestrial sediment transport and dispersal from West Maui watersheds into coastal waters and how terrestrial sediment affects nearby coral reefs under different oceanographic forcing and watershed restoration scenarios.

Wave energy and near-bed turbidity are positively correlated in the field observations, illustrating a process not captured by the model simulations in which sediment already deposited on the seabed is resuspended by wave action and subsequently transported by prevailing currents. In the model simulations, large waves during flood events led to a decrease in suspended-sediment concentrations. Notably, however, the model results only consider sediment entering coastal waters from five stream sources and do not simulate sediment already present on the seabed.

The model simulations project that the Honokeana and Māhinahina coral reefs would experience the greatest reduction in sediment impacts from theoretical watershed restoration. Additionally, when large waves coincide with flood events, post-storm sedimentation generally decreases in the nearshore region, but increases in the region offshore of the reefs. The measured and modeled sediment dynamics demonstrate a demarcation between the coral reefs sheltered within embayments (Honolua reef) or behind points (Wahikuli reef) and those along the relatively open coastline between Kapalua and Kāʻanapali (Kapalua, Honokeana, Māhinahina, and Honokōwai reefs). The sheltered sites are affected by terrestrial sediment from single stream mouths, where most sediment is delivered within hours of a flood (rain) event. Once this sediment enters the nearshore, it settles out and remains within the reef area for a prolonged period owing to a lack of wave or current-driven bed shear stress. Thus, the primary effect of sediment on the reefs within these sheltered areas is sedimentation. In contrast, coral reefs along the unsheltered (or “open”) section of coastline (between Kapalua and Kāʻanapali) are more exposed to waves and terrestrial sediment from multiple stream sources. At these reefs, fine-grained terrestrial sediment can rarely settle but instead remains in suspension. Thus, even long after a flood event has occurred, these sites chronically experience light attenuation from suspended sediment.

These analyses underscore the importance of understanding how coastal ocean waves and circulation can lead to different sediment dynamics and stressors for coral reefs along the same region of the West Maui coastline. These differing factors indicate that the most effective watershed restoration and mitigation strategies may vary among the different coral reefs and streams. An important next step is to determine how the science of this study can support management goals for these coral reefs: what are target reductions of sedimentation, suspended-sediment concentrations, or the resulting light attenuation? Then, using the coupled hydrodynamic-sediment model, we can examine which watershed restoration scenarios in each stream will best achieve those targets.

Publication Year 2023
Title Observations of coastal circulation, waves, and sediment transport along West Maui, Hawaiʻi (November 2017– March 2018), and modeling effects of potential watershed restoration on decreasing sediment loads to adjacent coral reefs
DOI 10.3133/ofr20221121
Authors Curt D. Storlazzi, Olivia M. Cheriton, Katherine M. Cronin, Luuk H. van der Heijden, Gundula Winter, Kurt J. Rosenberger, Joshua B. Logan, Robert T. McCall
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2022-1121
Index ID ofr20221121
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center