Rusty A. Feagin, Ph.D., Thomas P. Huff, Ph.D., Kevin M. Yeager. Ph.D., and Sam Whitehead, M.S., 2021. “Can sea level rise help us restore coastal wetlands? The hydrologic restoration of the Slop Bowl, Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas”, Shore & Beach, 89(4), 73-82.
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Can sea level rise help us restore coastal wetlands? The hydrologic restoration of the Slop Bowl, Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Rusty A. Feagin, Ph.D.,(1) Thomas P. Huff, Ph.D.,(1)
Kevin M. Yeager, Ph.D.,(2) and Sam Whitehead, M.S., (2)
1) Dept. of Ecology and Conservation Biology, Dept. of Ocean Engineering, Texas A&M University,
534 John Kimbrough Blvd., College Station, TX 77845; primary author email: firstname.lastname@example.org
2) Dept. of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Kentucky, 101 Slone Bldg., Lexington, KY 40506
The Slop Bowl marsh in the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge provides extraordinarily high quality, heavily used bird habitat. Much of this habitat has experienced hypersaline conditions due to both hydrologic alteration by humans and a rapidly and changing physical environment over the past several decades. Oil and natural gas extraction activities have resulted in excavation and channelization along pipelines and hydrologic obstruction by an access road. In addition, subsidence along growth faults has altered hydrologic pathways and lowered surface elevations in the center of the marsh. Our objective was to understand the underlying processes that contribute to hypersaline conditions and to evaluate possible restoration alternatives to reduce the severity of those conditions. Accordingly, we conducted extensive field and hydrologic modeling efforts, and identified the past, present, and future of this marsh habitat under a baseline scenario. We then compared various restoration action scenarios against this baseline. We found that, beginning in about 15 years, relative sea level rise will improve the hydrologic conditions by enhancing tidal flushing. However, if fill material is continually added to elevate the obstructing road as the sea rises, this hydrologic relief may never be realized. Moreover, we found that if a drought occurs during this critical period, a difference of only a few centimeters in the relative water level and road elevation, or changes in marsh surface elevations driven by fault motion and subsidence, may have catastrophic consequences. The modeling also suggests that several potential interventions can bridge this gap over the next 15 years and beyond. Actions that improve tidal circulation, reduce salinity, and enhance marsh accretion are being developed by the project team to enhance and restore habitat in the near term. The most optimal approaches evaluated thus far include the installation of culverts at critical locations, the excavation of a small channel, the modification of flow pathways, and the beneficial use of sediments and vegetative plantings. We conclude that, under specific circumstances or at unique locations such as the Slop Bowl marsh, sea level rise can be leveraged to improve coastal wetland health.