Backfill canals or trenches: brackish/salt marshes

How is the evidence assessed?
  • Effectiveness
    not assessed
  • Certainty
    not assessed
  • Harms
    not assessed

Source countries

Key messages

  • Four studies evaluated the effects, on vegetation, of backfilling canals or trenches in brackish/salt marshes. All four studies were in the USA. There was overlap in the canals used in three of the studies. All studies included some freshwater areas in some analyses, but all results are based predominantly on canals in brackish or saline marshes.

VEGETATION COMMUNITY

  • Overall extent (4 studies): One paired, site comparison study in marshes in the USA reported that emergent vegetation coverage was typically lower in backfilled canals, after four years, than in adjacent undisturbed marsh. Three other studies in marshes in the USA simply reported coverage of emergent marsh vegetation between 6 months and 25 years after backfilling canals. All four studies reported that coverage was greater on former spoil areas alongside canals than within the partly filled canal channels. Two of the studies also reported the frequency of submerged/floating vegetation after 6–60 months, and one reported coverage of upland plant species on spoil banks that had not been completely levelled after 6–11 years.
  • Overall richness/diversity (2 studies): One replicated, site comparison study in marshes in the USA reported that former spoil areas alongside backfilled canals had greater plant species richness than nearby natural marsh, due to the presence of upland species on unlevelled areas. One other study of a backfilled canal in predominantly brackish and saline marshes in the USA simply quantified richness of submerged vegetation four years after backfilling.

VEGETATION ABUNDANCE

 

VEGETATION STRUCTURE

About key messages

Key messages provide a descriptive index to studies we have found that test this intervention.

Studies are not directly comparable or of equal value. When making decisions based on this evidence, you should consider factors such as study size, study design, reported metrics and relevance of the study to your situation, rather than simply counting the number of studies that support a particular interpretation.

Supporting evidence from individual studies

  1. A replicated study in 1983–1984 of 31 backfilled canals of varying salinity in Louisiana, USA (Neill & Turner 1987) reported that all but one developed some coverage of marsh vegetation within 6–60 months, and that aquatic vegetation was present in most. Considering only the 26 in brackish and saline canals, emergent marsh vegetation coverage was 53% in former spoil areas alongside the channels, on average (range 0–99% for individual canals) but <1% within the channels, on average (range 0–40% for individual canals). The study suggests that some of the variation between canals could be related to the quality of the backfilling/skill of the dredge operator. Of 27 canals of varying salinity (but mostly brackish or saline), submerged or floating aquatic vegetation was present in 18. Methods: The area of marsh vegetation alongside and within 31 backfilled canals in brackish and salt marshes was estimated from aerial photographs taken in 1983 and 1984. Submerged vegetation was identified in ground surveys. The canals, originally dug by the oil and gas industry, had been backfilled with adjacent spoil between 1979 and 1984. This reduced their water depth to 0.1–1.8 m. Eighteen of the canals had also been plugged at one end with earth or shell dams. This study selected canals from the same master set of 33 used in (3) and (4).

    Study and other actions tested
  2. A paired, site comparison study in 1984 of a backfilled canal crossing predominantly brackish and saline marshes in Louisiana, USA (Abernethy & Gosselink 1988) reported that it developed coverage of emergent vegetation over four years, but that this remained lower than in natural marshes. Statistical significance was not assessed. In 65 of 83 sampled sections, emergent vegetation coverage was lower within the backfilled canal than in adjacent undisturbed marsh (data not clearly reported). Vegetation coverage in the backfilled canal varied with canal width, excavation method, substrate and coverage in the adjacent marsh (factors which were themselves correlated). The backfilled canal contained 2–10 submerged plant species, depending on salinity, with submerged vegetation present at 10–59% of sampling points (data not reported for undisturbed marsh). Methods: In 1979–1980, a canal dug for an oil pipeline was immediately but incompletely backfilled with spoil. The canal predominantly crossed brackish and saline marshes (94% of study area); data for freshwater marshes were combined with weakly brackish marshes. In August 1984, vegetation was surveyed in 83 sections of the canal (each 0.62 km long) and natural marsh adjacent to each section. Emergent vegetation coverage was estimated from aerial photographs. Submerged vegetation was sampled with a rake at 20 points/section.

    Study and other actions tested
  3. A replicated study in 1983–1990 of 30 backfilled canals predominantly in brackish and saline marshes in Louisiana, USA (Turner et al. 1994) reported that they developed some coverage of marsh vegetation, but mainly alongside rather than within the channels. Between 6 and 60 months after backfilling, coverage of emergent marsh vegetation was 47% on former spoil areas alongside the channels, but only 5% within the channels. Upland vegetation occurred alongside the channels, with 28% coverage, in patches where spoil had not been completely levelled. Similar coverage was recorded 6–11 years after backfilling (marsh alongside canal: 51%; marsh within canal: 5%; upland vegetation alongside canal: 26%; statistical significance of changes not assessed). Methods: The area of marsh vegetation alongside and within 30 backfilled canals was estimated from aerial photographs taken in 1983, 1984 and 1990. This study selected canals from the same master set of 33 used in (1) and (4). The canals were originally dug by the oil and gas industry. They were backfilled with adjacent spoil between 1979 and 1984, reducing the water depth. Some canals were also plugged at one end with earth or shell dams. The study does not separate results for freshwater, brackish and saline marshes, but most canals (approximately 80%) were in brackish or saline marshes.

    Study and other actions tested
  4. A replicated, site comparison study in 2000–2004 of 30 backfilled canals of varying salinity in Louisiana, USA (Baustian & Turner 2006) reported that they all developed some coverage of marsh vegetation after 20–25 years, but found that they had higher plant species richness than adjacent natural marsh. Considering only the 25 brackish and saline canals, emergent marsh vegetation coverage was 65% in former spoil areas alongside the channels, on average (range 5–95% for individual canals) but only 1% within the channels, on average (range 0–100% for individual canals). The study suggests that marsh vegetation coverage on spoil banks was related to how much of the spoil bank was actually levelled to marsh elevations. For 22 canals of varying salinity (but mostly brackish or saline), plant species richness was greater alongside backfilled canals (11 species/6 m2) than in nearby natural marsh (6 species/6 m2). Remnant spoil banks supported some upland species. Methods: The area of marsh vegetation alongside and within 30 canals was estimated from aerial photographs and field surveys in 2000 and 2004. Plant species were recorded alongside 22 canals (six 1-m2 quadrats/canal) and in nearby natural marsh (six 1-m2 quadrats/site). The canals, originally dug by the oil and gas industry, had been backfilled with adjacent spoil between 1979 and 1984. Between 5 and 100% of the spoil heaps alongside each canal were levelled, and the canals were made shallower (but not filled completely). Some canals were plugged at one end with earth or shell dams. This study selected canals from the same master set of 33 used in (1) and (3).

    Study and other actions tested
Please cite as:

Taylor N.G., Grillas P., Smith R.K. & Sutherland W.J. (2021) Marsh and Swamp Conservation: Global Evidence for the Effects of Interventions to Conserve Marsh and Swamp Vegetation. Conservation Evidence Series Synopses. University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.

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Marsh and Swamp Conservation

This Action forms part of the Action Synopsis:

Marsh and Swamp Conservation
Marsh and Swamp Conservation

Marsh and Swamp Conservation - Published 2021

Marsh and Swamp Synopsis

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