The Atchafalaya River Basin is a distributary system of the Mississippi River containing the largest riparian area in the lower Mississippi River Valley and the largest remaining forested bottomland in North America. Reductions in the area of open water in the Atchafalaya have been occurring over the last 100 years, and many historical waterways are increasingly filled by sediment. This study examines two cases of swamp channels (< 85 m3/s) that are filling and becoming unnavigable as a result of high sediment loads and slow water velocities. The water velocities in natural bayous are further reduced because of flow capture by channels constructed for access. Bathymetry, flow, suspended sediment, deposited bottom-material, isotopes, and photointerpretation were used to characterize the channel fill. On average, water flowing through these two channels lost 23% of the suspended sediment load in the studied reaches. Along one of the studied reaches, two constructed access channels diverted significant flow out of the primary channel and into the adjacent swamp. Immediately downstream of each of the two access channels, the cross-sectional area of the studied channel was reduced. Isotopic analyses of bottom-material cores indicate that bed filling has been rapid and occurred after detectable levels of Cesium-137 were no longer being deposited. Interpretation of aerial photography indicates that water is bypassing the primary channels in favor of the more hydraulically efficient access channels, resulting in low or no-velocity flow conditions in the primary channel. These swamp channel conditions are typical in the Atchafalaya River Basin where relict large channel dimensions result in flow velocities that are normally too low to carry fine-grained sediment. Constructed channels increase the rate of natural channel avulsion and abandonment as a result of flow capture.
Additional publication details
Human-induced stream channel abandonment/capture and filling of floodplain channels within the Atchafalaya River Basin, Louisiana