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Retention of riverine sediment and nutrient loads by coastal plain floodplains

January 1, 2009

Despite the frequent citation of wetlands as effective regulators of water quality, few quantitative estimates exist for their cumulative retention of the annual river loads of nutrients or sediments. Here we report measurements of sediment accretion and associated carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus accumulation as sedimentation over feldspar marker horizons placed on floodplains of the non-tidal, freshwater Coastal Plain reaches of seven rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, USA. We then scale these accumulation rates to the entire extent of non-tidal floodplain in the Coastal Plain of each river, defined as riparian area extending from the Fall Line to the upper limit of tidal influence, and compare them to annual river loads. Floodplains accumulated a very large amount of material compared to their annual river loads of sediment (median among rivers = 119%), nitrogen (24%), and phosphorus (59%). Systems with larger floodplain areas and longer floodplain inundation retained greater proportions of riverine loads of nitrogen and phosphorus, but systems with larger riverine loads retained a smaller proportion of that load on floodplains. Although the source and long-term fate of deposited sediment and associated nutrients are uncertain, these fluxes represent the interception of large amounts of material that otherwise could have been exported downstream. Coastal Plain floodplain ecosystems are important regulators of sediment, carbon, and nutrient transport in watersheds of the Chesapeake Bay.