Deltas as Ecomorphodynamic Systems: Effects of Vegetation Gradients on Sediment Trapping and Channel Dynamics

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 3:25 PM
Anastasia Piliouras, Wonsuck Kim and Holly Goggin, University of Texas, Austin, TX, United States
Understanding the feedbacks between water, sediment, and vegetation in deltas is an important part of understanding deltas as ecomorphodynamic systems. We conducted a set of laboratory experiments using alfalfa (Medicago sativa) as a proxy for delta vegetation to determine (1) the effects of plants on delta growth and channel dynamics and (2) the influence of fine material on delta evolution. Vegetated experiments were compared to a control run without plants to isolate the effects of vegetation, and experiments with fine sediment were compared to a set of similar experiments with only sand. We found that alfalfa increased sediment trapping on the delta topset, and that the plants were especially effective at retaining fine material. Compared to the control run, the vegetated experiments showed an increased retention of fine sediment on the floodplain that resulted in increased delta relief and stronger pulses of shoreline progradation when channel avulsion and migration occurred. In other words, a higher amount of sediment storage with the addition of vegetation corresponded to a higher amount of sediment excavation during channelization events. In natural systems, dense bank vegetation is typically expected to help confine flow. We seeded our delta uniformly, which eliminated typical vegetation density gradients from riverbank to island center and therefore diminished the gradient in overbank sedimentation that best confines channels by creating levees. Dense clusters of alfalfa throughout the interior of the floodplain and delta islands were therefore able to induce flow splitting, where channels diverged around a stand of plants. This created several smaller channels that were then able to more widely distribute sediment at the delta front compared to unvegetated experiments. We conclude that plants are efficient sediment trappers that change the rate and amount of sediment storage in the delta topset, and that gradients in vegetation density are an important factor in determining how channel behavior may change.