Many temperate estuaries have intermittently open and closed mouths, a feature that is often related to intermittent freshwater input. These systems, often overlooked due to their small size, can have large hydrological variability over medium-term time scales.
This variability presents potential difficulties for estuarine species particularly where anthropogenic alterations to freshwater flows can cause large deviations from natural patterns of tidal influence and inundation of habitat.
Influences of natural and hydrological variability on seagrasses were examined in two central Victorian estuaries with anthropogenically-modified but naturally-intermittent freshwater flows and mouth openings. Comparisons were focused on differences between an estuary with artificially-augmented freshwater inflow and an adjacent system, in which the volume and timing of inflows were altered by a reservoir. Eight additional estuaries in the region were also used to provide a context for these two main sites.
Hydrological changes during the three-year field component were affected by the ending of a drought and then a major flood a year later as well as by ongoing anthropogenic flow reduction and augmentation. These influences on hydrology were associated with an initially high seagrass coverage that was substantially reduced and showed signs of recovery only in the system that was affected by lower inflows. Such influences and responses also changed seasonally but to a much lesser extent than the responses to stochastic climatic events.
Natural flows were intermittent and varied substantially between years. Flooding flows represented up to 89% of the long-term annual average flow. Water quality was broadly typical of the region, with the exception of low pH in some tributaries, especially those of Anglesea estuary. Anthropogenic changes to flow were most evident at times of low natural flows and resulted in longer and more frequent periods of zero inflow to Painkalac estuary and a continual base flow to Anglesea. This base flow, from ponds containing coal ash, neutralised waters flowing from upstream and increased conductivity, except at times of high natural flow.
A three-state conceptual model of the magnitude and variability of water levels, based largely on the degree of tidal influence was identified and quantitatively assessed for the two estuaries that were the main focus of the study. These states in turn had a large influence on the area and inundation of benthic habitat. Floods tended to open the mouths of estuaries, which then remained tidal given sufficient flow to overcome sedimentary processes at the mouths. Low and zero inflow was a precondition for closure of the mouths of the estuaries. When closed, differences in inflow resulted in different endpoints in salinity patterns. From an initial pattern similar to a classic ‘salt wedge’, Painkalac estuary, with reduced inflow, quickly destratified and gradually became more saline, at times hypersaline. Anglesea estuary, with augmented flow, tended to remain stratified for longer until becoming completely fresh, given a long enough period of closure.
Episodic changes in the water quality of the estuaries were associated with different components of the freshwater flow regimes. At high flows, fresh waters of low pH with a high metal load entered Anglesea estuary. Except during the largest flood, when the estuary was completely flushed, this water was neutralised at the halocline and resulting in precipitation of metals. High flows into Painkalac were associated with elevated concentrations of clay-sourced suspended solids. During a closed period, with zero flow, a release of sediment-bound nutrients triggered by anoxia was observed in Painkalac, followed by an algal bloom.
The large decline in seagrass extent that was observed in both estuaries was closely related to floods and the subsequent reductions in potential habitat associated with the tidal states that followed. Analysis of historical patterns of extent against rainfall records suggested that periods of drought and extended mouth closures were related to establishment and expansion of beds. This model was similar to that described for South African estuaries and contrasted with more-seasonal patterns reported for local marine embayments.
Rates of in situ decomposition of seagrass detritus showed a mix of seasonal and disturbance-driven patterns of change, depending on estuary. Variability of these rates on a scale of 100s of metres was typically not significant, but there were a few episodes that were highly significant. A negative correlation between decomposition rate and seagrass extent was also observed. A novel technique for assessing cellulose decomposition potential in sediment, adapted from soil science, proved to be a useful tool for estuarine research. Results from this component of the study highlighted both small-scale variability that was inconsistent through time, and also stable differences in decomposition potential between depths and estuaries that were consistent with differences in hydrological state and salinity.
Given the relative lack of knowledge about processes in intermittent estuaries, particularly those relating to changes in freshwater inflow, results from this study will be of value both locally and for similar systems elsewhere. Locally, it is likely that flow regimes to both Anglesea and Painkalac estuaries will be reduced, following closure of the mine power station at Anglesea and due to increased demand from the reservoir above Painkalac. There is potential to manage flows from each of these sources to minimise downstream effects. Regionally, and globally, there are many intermittent estuaries in areas with Mediterranean-type climates. It has been predicted that the climates of these regions will become drier but with an increase in intensity of storm events, both of which have ramifications for flow regimes to estuaries. It is hoped that results of this study will contribute to more informed management of intermittent estuaries in the context of these likely changes.
Field of Research
060205 Marine and Estuarine Ecology (incl Marine Ichthyology) 040608 Surfacewater Hydrology 050102 Ecosystem Function
Socio Economic Objective
960503 Ecosystem Assessment and Management of Coastal and Estuarine Environments
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