Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.)


Virginia Institute of Marine Science


Located between upland and riverine systems, extensive tidal freshwater wetlands are influenced by a variety of recharging water sources and their respective nutrient contents. Conversely, tidal wetlands discharge interstitial waters and solutes to surface waters during periods of aerial exposure. Geohydrologic and model simulation methodology were utilized in order to aid in the understanding of wetland subsurface flow dynamics, its influence upon pore water nutrient chemistry, and its role in nutrient exchange with adjacent surface waters. Interstitial water nutrient chemistry was monitored along three transects extending from the uplands to the creekbank edge. Surface waters were also monitored throughout the 13 month study period.

Measurements of soil dry bulk density, percent organic matter, fiber content, and horizontal hydraulic conductivity were conducted along a 118 meter transect from the creekbank edge to the high marsh/upland interface. Results indicate vertical and lateral heterogeneity of these physical and hydraulic soil properties within the upper one meter soil profile. Multivariate statistical techniques best described the transect as four separate soil types. General regions of soil types followed wetland elevational regions, these include: the creekbank, levee, low marsh flat, and high marsh regions. Fiber content was identified as the measured parameter which best explained variations in wetland soil permeability. Vertical and horizontal hydraulic head fluctuations were monitored utilizing piezometer/well arrays along the 118 meter transect. Direct measurement of interstitial water seepage flow from the subaquaeous portion of the creekbank to adjacent surface water was determined. Model simulation of subsurface hydrodynamics were made in order to provide water table fluctuations, estimates of horizontal seepage, and pore water budgets along the transect. Field measurements of marsh surface elevations and hydraulic soil properties were incorporated into the model to allow for comparison between simulated and observed results.

Spatial variations in soil properties, and subsurface hydrodynamics indicate that an extensive tidal freshwater wetland cannot be considered as a homogeneous unit. It may be described more accurately as three distinct, yet interactive regions (creekbank, low marsh flat,and high marsh), with varying potentials for surface and interstitial water exchange. The creekbank, experiencing large water table oscillations and hydraulic gradients, was the most dynamic and tidally influenced region. These hydrodynamic characteristics resulted in substantial subsurface water transport and dilution of interstitial waters by recharging surface waters within the creekbank region. Due to extremely low hydraulic gradients and ponding of water, horizontal seepage was minimal within the low marsh flat. Moderate hydraulic gradients in conjunction with highly permeable soils were conducive for significant horizontal seepage within the high marsh. Hydrologic evidence indicates a potential for nutrient rich shallow groundwater recharge within the high marsh region. Sensitivity analysis within the creekbank region indicates that aquifer depth exhibits the largest influence on interstitial water discharge followed by soil permeability and specific yield properties of the aquifer respectively. Inverted results, as those found within the creekbank region, were obtained for the high marsh region.

Interstitial water nitrogen and total phosphorus levels were variable and a function of depth, location, and time. However, several generalities and patterns appeared relatively consistant. Creekbank pore waters were relatively enriched with oxidized inorganic forms of nitrogen relative to low and high marsh regions. Creekbank ammonium, total nitrogen and phosphorus interstitial pools were intermediate, whereas, dissolved organic nitrogen levels was the lowest of the three regions sampled. The low marsh flat was inorganic nitrogen poor, and intermediate with respect to dissolved organic nitrogen, relative to creekbank and high marsh regions. Pore waters within the low marsh were significantly enriched with dissolved total phosphorus as compared to the creekbank and high marsh regions. High marsh interstitial waters displayed reduced levels of nitrate and nitrite, while levels of ammonium, dissolved organic and total nitrogen were elevated in relation to the creekbank and low marsh flat. Interstitial total phosphorus levels within the high marsh were significantly lower than the low marsh and approximately equal to the creekbank region. The role and influence of subsurface hydrodynamics upon pore water nutrient concentrations and spatial variations are discussed.

Spatial and temporal potential patterns of nutrient exchange between surface water and pore waters of various wetland regions are identified. Dissolved oxidized inorganic forms of nitrogen were imported throughout the sampling period by the creekbank, low marsh flat, and high marsh regions. Ammonium flux, due to seepage , was predominantly from the wetland to surface waters; the high marsh exhibited a greatest potential for ammonium export. The high marsh was a source of dissolved organic nitrogen throughout the study, while the low marsh flat and creekbank regions may best be characterized as sources during winter, spring, and summer months, and potential sinks during the fall. The high marsh exhibited the potential to export dissolved total nitrogen throughout the year, whereas, the low marsh flat and creekbank exhibit export potential during spring and summer months. Patterns of total phosphorus exchange were from high marsh, and low marsh regions throughout the year, while exchange between creekbank and surface waters was minimal and temporally variable. Hydrodynamics within each wetland region must be considered in conjunction with pore water chemistry, in order to fully understand nutrient and solute transport potentials.



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