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Returning canal spoil banks into canals, or backfilling, is used in Louisiana marshes to mitigate damage caused by dredging for oil and gas extraction. We evaluated 33 canals backfilled through July 1984 to assess the success of habitat restoration. We determined restoration success by examining canal depth, vegetation recolonization, and regraded spoil bank soils after backfilling. Restoration success depended on: marsh type, canal location, canal age, marsh soil characteristics, the presence or absence of a plug at the canal mouth, whether mitigation was on- or off-site, and dredge operator performance.

Backfilling reduced median canal depth from 2.4 to 1.1 m, restored marsh vegetation on the backfilled spoil bank, but did not restore emergent marsh vegetation in the canal because of the lack of sufficient spoil material to fill the canal and time. Median percentage of cover of marsh vegetation on the canal spoil banks was 51.6%. Median percentage of cover in the canal was 0.7%. The organic matter and water content of spoil bank soils were restored to values intermediate between spoil bank levels and predredging marsh conditions.

The average percentage of cover of marsh vegetation on backfilled spoil banks was highest in intermediate marshes (68.6%) and lowest in fresh (34.7%) and salt marshes (33.9%). Average canal depth was greatest in intermediate marshes (1.50 m) and least in fresh marshes (0.85 m). Canals backfilled in the Chenier Plain of western Louisiana were shallower (average depth = 0.61 m) than in the eastern Deltaic Plain (mean depth range = 1.08 to 1.30 m), probably because of differences in sediment type, lower subsidence rate, and lower tidal exchange in the Chenier Plain. Canals backfilled in marshes with more organic soils were deeper, probably as a result of greater loss of spoil volume caused by oxidation of soil organic matter. Canals ten or more years old at the time of backfilling had shallower depths after backfilling. Depths varied widely among canals backfilled within ten years of dredging. Canal size showed no relationship to canal depth or amount of vegetation reestablished. Plugged canals contained more marsh reestablished in the canal and much greater chance of colonization by submerged aquatic vegetation compared with unplugged canals. Dredge operator skill was important in leveling spoil banks to allow vegetation reestablishment. Wide variation in dredge performance led to differing success of vegetation restoration.

Complete reestablishment of the vegetation was not a necessary condition for successful restoration. In addition to providing vegetation reestablishment, backfilling canals resulted in shallow water areas with higher habitat value for benthos, fish, and waterfowl than unfilled canals. Spoil bank removal also may help restore water flow patterns over the marsh surface. Increased backfilling for wetland mitigation and restoration is recommended.

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Environmental Management

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