Connectivity in river deltas: Field measurements and development of a conceptual framework

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 2:10 PM
Paola Passalacqua and Matthew R Hiatt, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, United States
River deltas are dynamic systems composed of a network of channels and interchannel islands that are subject to forces such as river discharge, tides, wind, and anthropogenic activities. The delivery of water, sediment, and nutrients from the channel to the delta floodplain is important for maintaining and evolving delta systems. This delivery depends on the connectivity between channels and delta floodplains. Connectivity is a concept that has been investigated extensively in tributary systems but remains relatively unexplored in delta distributary networks. This may be due to the structure of delta networks, often more complex than the one of tributary networks, and forces such as wind and tides acting on delta systems.

In this study, we present a framework for analyzing connectivity in river delta networks and present field evidence of surface water connectivity mechanisms from Wax Lake Delta (WLD) in coastal Louisiana, USA through measurements of water discharge and hydraulic tracer propagation. Calculated discharges from velocity measurements reveal that 46-77% of the flow exits the system via the distributary channels, while the remaining volume is routed to the islands, highlighting the importance of channel-island connectivity and the role of islands in the hydrological network at WLD. Tides and wind also play an important role in the channel-island connectivity by modulating flow into and out of the islands, as well as influencing the hydraulic residence time of the inundated island interiors, which has implication for nutrient cycling. A framework for analyzing connectivity in river deltas is presented, in which we characterize the importance of dynamic island inundation, environmental forces, and network structure.