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Enhancing mud supply from the Lower Missouri River to the Mississippi River Delta USA: Dam bypassing and coastal restoration

Autori: GP Kemp, JW Day, JD Rogers, L Giosan, N Peyronnin

Editorial: Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, in press, 2016.


Sand transport to the Mississippi River Delta (MRD) remains sufficient to build wetlands in shallow, sheltered coastal bays fed by engineered diversions on the Mississippi River (MR) and its Atchafalaya River (AR) distributary. But suspended mud (silt & clay) flux to the coast has dropped from a mean of 390 Mt y−1 in the early 1950s, to 100 Mt y−1 since 1970. This fine-grained sediment travels deeper into receiving estuarine basins and plays a critical role in sustaining existing marshes. Virtually all of the 300 Mt y−1 of missing mud once flowed from the Missouri River (MOR) Basin before nearly 100 dams were built as part of the Pick-Sloan water development project. About 100 Mt y−1 is now intercepted by main-stem Upper MOR dams closed in 1953. But the remaining 200 Mt y−1 is trapped by impoundments built on tributaries to the Lower MOR in the 1950s and 1960s. Sediment flux during the post-dam high MOR discharge years of 1973, 1993 and 2011 approached pre-dam levels when tributaries to the Lower MOR, including the Platte and Kansas Rivers, contributed to flood flows. West bank tributaries drain a vast, arid part of the Great Plains, while those entering from the east bank traverse the lowlands of the MOR floodplain. Both provinces are dominated by highly erodible loess soils. Staunching the continued decline in MR fine-grained sediment flux has assumed greater importance now that engineered diversions are being built to reconnect the Lowermost MR to the MRD. Tributary dam bypassing in the Lower MOR basin could increase mud supply to the MRD by 100–200 Mt y−1 within 1–2 decades. Such emergency measures to save the MRD are compatible with objectives of the Missouri River Restoration and Platte River Recovery Programs to restore MOR riparian habitat for endangered species. Rapid mobilization to shunt fine-grained sediments past as many as 50 Lower MOR tributary dams in several U.S. states will undoubtedly require as much regional coordination and funding in the 21st century as the monumental effort it took to build the dams in the last century.