Freshwater inflows in the Nueces Delta, TX : impacts on porewater salinity and estimation of needs
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Estuarine wetlands and salt marshes are fundamentally driven by variations in freshwater inflow. In semi-arid salt marshes, such as the Nueces River Delta, TX, the stochastic nature of freshwater inflow events exposes resident organisms to a wide range of environmental conditions. In this study, we investigate (1) the relative importance of environmental variables on porewater salinity and (2) determination of freshwater inflow needs based on the response of emergent plants to salinity variations. Porewater salinity variations were tracked on a continuous basis with deployed conductivity sensors and on a synoptic basis with soil water extracts. We found that spatial patterns of porewater salinity were characterized by a high degree of variability in creekbank areas (23.8 ± 7.68) relative to interior marsh areas (44.2 ± 3.4). Our observations were used to test a simple model capable of predicting porewater salinities based on environmental variables. Both empirical measurements and model simulations indicated that semiannual tides play a critical role in controlling porewater flushing from precipitation and freshwater inflow events. Estimation of freshwater inflow needs for the Nueces Delta proceeded in two steps. First, we examined the response of three common emergent plants species (Borrichia frutescens, Spartina alterniflora, and Salicornia virginica) to variations in salinity. The abundance of one species in particular (S. alterniflora) was tightly coupled to salinity variations whereby salinities exceeding 25 ± 5 resulted in dramatic declines in coverage. Next, the relationship between freshwater inflow and porewater salinity was examined with respect to the salinity “tolerance” of S. alterniflora. Estimated inflow needs based on maintenance of substantial (> 20%) S. alterniflora coverage was comparable to both previous inflow needs estimates and mean annual inflows observed over the course of the study. The results of this study suggest that S. alterniflora abundance provides a reliable indicator of overall estuarine hydrological condition in the Nueces Delta.