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Wetland restoration is largely a developing science and engineering enterprise. Analyses of results are too few and constrained to observations over a few years. We report here on the effectiveness of one restoration technique used sparsely in coastal Louisiana for several decades. Canals have been dredged in coastal Louisiana wetlands since 1938 for oil and gas exploration and extraction. These canals are typically dredged to 2.5 m depth and are 20 to 40 m wide. Canal lengths vary from 100 m to several 1000s m in the case of outer continental shelf pipeline canals that cross the wetlands.

Today, thousands of miles of canals crisscross these wetlands. Studies have linked dredged canals to a number of undesirable effects on the wetland environment including alterations in salinity, flooding and drainage patterns, direct loss of marsh by convention to open water, and increases in marsh erosion rates. These effects have led state and federal agencies charged with managing the wetland resource to look for methods of mitigating canal impacts. One possible method of managing spoil banks after the abandonment of a drilling site is to return spoil material from the spoil banks to the canal with the hope that marsh vegetation will be reestablished on the old spoil banks and in the canal. The movement of former spoil bank material back into the canal is referred to as ‘backfilling’.

The purpose of this study was to (1) examine how backfilled canals changed over 10 years, (2) examine factors influencing success with multiple regression statistical models, and, (3) compare costs of backfilling with other Louisiana marsh restoartion projects. We examined the sites to document and interpret changes occurring since 1983/4 and to statistically model the combined data derived from these new and previous analyses. Specifically, we wanted to determine the recovery rates of vegetation, water depth, and soils in backfilled canals, ‘restored’ spoil banks, and in nearby marshes, and to quantify the influence of plugging canals on these rates.

The major factors determining backfilling restoration success are the depth of the canal, soil type, canal dimensions, locale, dredge operator skill, and permitting conditions. Plugging the canal has no apparent effect on water depth or vegetation cover, with the exception that submerged aquatic vegetation may be more frequently observed behind backfilled canals with plugs than in backfilled canals without plugs. Canal age, soil organic matter content, and whether restoration was done as mitigation on-site or off-site were the most important predictors of final canal depth. Canal length and percentage of spoil returned (+) had the greatest effect on the restoration of vegetation cover. Backfilled canals were shallower if they were older, in soils lower in organic matter, and backfilled off-site. Backfilling the canal restores wetlands at a cost of $1,200 to $3,400/ha, which compares very favorably with planned restoration projects in south Louisiana.

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Wetlands Ecology and Management

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