Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Environmental Resources & Policy
The Atchafalaya River Basin (ARB) in Louisiana is the principal distributary of the Mississippi River, and it contains the largest contiguous area of baldcypress-water tupelo swamp forests in North America. After designation of the ARB as a federal floodway following the destructive 1927 Mississippi River (MR) flood, it was extensively modified to accommodate a substantial portion of the MR flow (~30%) to mitigate flooding in southern Louisiana. The resulting reach to system scale modifications for regional flood mitigation, navigation, and hydrocarbon extraction have substantially altered the lateral connectivity between the AR and its floodplain wetlands, threatening the ecological integrity of this globally-important ecosystem. Multiple stakeholder groups agree that restoring flow connectivity is essential to maintaining the basin’s water quality and forest health, and several flow-connectivity enhancement projects (hereafter, project elements) have been proposed by the Atchafalaya Basin Program’s Technical Advisory Group within the Flat Lake Water Management Unit (FLWMU) study area to increase lateral hydrologic connectivity within the management unit and beyond. Additionally, a new flow prescription to improve floodplain habitat has recently been suggested for the ARB. Flow into the ARB is now regulated through the Old River Control Structure (ORCS; operational in 1963), and represents the opportunity for large-scale flow experiments to enhance a multitude of ecosystem services that have been degraded due to anthropogenic alteration. For this study, I compiled existing datasets and constructed a 1D2D hydraulic model to evaluate: 1) if the suggested flow prescription would have the desired inundation impacts; 2) whether the proposed project elements would improve lateral connectivity in the FLWMU; and 3) whether recommended project elements would increase the area suitable for baldcypress recruitment in the study area. To examine the first two research questions above, I examined two scenarios – a baseline scenario to examine current conditions (no restoration projects), and a full-implementation scenario, where all proposed project elements that could be examined at the model resolution were implemented. Comparison of the modeling results for the baseline scenario to the suggested flow prescription goals suggests the overbank discharge and the extreme low-flow targets would have the desired impacts of inundating and drying out of the majority of the FLWMU, respectively. Proxy indicators of enhanced flow connectivity suggest that proposed projects will improve water quality, especially at intermediate to high flow conditions, when ~90% of the FLWMU experiences improved drainage as indicated by higher rates of water surface elevation decrease and lower overall system water volume. The stated objectives of the project elements recommended by the Technical Advisory Group are to improve connectivity and water quality, but another important and related restoration goal for stakeholders includes baldcypress restoration. To examine the third objective, I used a model-derived proxy indicator of habitat improvement (depth reduction) at two key discharges, along with other ecological suitability factors, to determine areas most likely to support baldcypress recruitment. Here, I compared baseline conditions to two alternative restoration scenarios – 1) a targeted implementation scenario where 22 project elements were implemented, and 2) the full-implementation scenario, where all projects that could be examined at the model resolution were implemented. Suitable habitat area for both natural and artificial baldcypress recruitment increased under intermediate flow conditions but remained unchanged for higher discharge conditions. For the intermediate discharge scenario, the full-implementation scenario results in a 2 km2 increase in the class considered most suitable for natural baldcypress regeneration within the calculated recruitment band, and a decrease of ~16 km2 in the areas considered least suitable for the entire FLWMU study area. Coupled with the connectivity results, which indicate that nutrient-rich river water will be exchanged between main channels and the backswamp at a greater range of flows, it appears that project implementation alone will benefit baldcypress recruitment, especially artificial regeneration efforts. However, full project implementation coupled with large-scale flow modifications at ORCS would likely provide maximum benefit for baldcypress restoration efforts that seek to increase the area supportive of natural baldcypress regeneration.
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