Sediments in the aquatic ecosystem are analogous to soil in the terrestrial ecosystem as they are the source of substrate nutrients, and micro- and macroflora and -fauna that are the basis of support to living aquatic resources. Sediments are the key catalysts of environmental food cycles and the dynamics of water quality. Aquatic sediments are derived from and composed of natural physical, chemical, and biological components generally related to their watersheds.
Sediments range in particle distribution from micron-sized clay particles through silt, sand, gravel, rock, and boulders. Sediments originate from bed load transport , beach and bank erosion, and land runoff. They are naturally sorted by size through prevalent hydrodynamic conditions . In general, fast-moving water will contain coarse-grained sediments and quiescent water will contain fine-grained sediments. Mineralogical characteristics of sediments vary widely and reflect watershed characteristics. Organic material in sediments is derived from the decomposed tissues of plants and animals, from aquatic and terrestrial sources, and from various point and nonpoint wastewater discharges. The content of organic matter increases in concentration as the size of sediment mineral particles decreases. Dissolved chemicals in the overlying and sediment pore waters are a product of inorganic and organic sedimentary materials, as well as runoff and ground water that range from fresh to marine in salinity. This sediment/water environment varies significantly over space and time and its characteristics are driven by complex biogeochemical interaction between the inorganic, living, and nonliving organic components. The sediment biotic community includes micro-, meso-, and macrofauna and -flora that are interdependent of each other and their host sediment's biogeochemical characteristics.
Sedimentation is the direct result of the loss (erosion) of sediments from other aquatic areas or land-based areas. Sedimentation can be detrimental or beneficial to aquatic environments. Moreover, sediment impoverishment (erosion or lack of replenishment) in an area can be as bad as too much sedimentation. Sedimentation in one area is linked to erosion or impoverishment in another area and is a natural process of all water bodies (i.e., lakes, rivers, estuaries, coastal zones, and even the deep ocean). As an example, detrimental effects can be related to the burial of bottom-dwelling organisms and beneficial effects can be related to the building of new substrates for the development of marshes. These natural physical processes will continue whether or not they are influenced by the activities of humankind.
Human activities, however, have significantly enhanced sedimentation as well as sediment loss. Sedimentation activities can be land-based (i.e., agriculture, forestry, construction, urbanization, recreation) and water-based (i.e., dams, navigation, port activities, drag fishing, channelization, water diversions, wetlands loss, other large-scale hydrological modifications). Sediment impoverishment or loss is generally due to retention behind dams, bank or beach protection activities, water diversions, and many of the aquatic activities cited here. Morphological changes (physical changes over a large area) to large aquatic systems can also result in major changes in natural sediment erosion and sedimentation patterns. As an example, the change in the size and shape of a water body will result in new water flow patterns leading to erosion or sediment removal from sensitive areas.
The environmental impacts of sedimentation include the following: loss of important or sensitive aquatic habitat, decrease in fishery resources, loss of recreation attributes, loss of coral reef communities, human health concerns, changes in fish migration, increases in erosion, loss of wetlands, nutrient balance changes, circulation changes, increases in turbidity , loss of submerged vegetation, and coastline alteration.
Abatement or control of sedimentation can be successful if implemented on a broad land area or watershed scale and is directly related to improvement in land-use practices. Agriculture and forestry (logging) improvements where soil loss is minimized are not only technically feasible: They can be carried out at a moderate cost and with net benefits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a wide range of training and implementation programs for these types of activities. The United Nations Environmental Programme also has global programs, their Regional Seas activities, to guide countries in the management of land-based activities negatively impacting the coastal zone. Improved land-use practices are the primary measures to control sediment sources: terracing, low tillage , modified cropping, reduced agricultural intensity (e.g., no-till buffer zones), and wetlands construction as sediment interceptors. Forestry practices such as clear-cutting to the water's edge without replacement tree planting must be seriously curtailed because base soil in exposed areas will erode and import sediment to sensitive aqueous areas. Wetlands that separate upland areas from aquatic areas serve as natural filters for the runoff from the adjacent land. Wetlands thus serve to trap soil particles and associated agricultural contaminants. The construction of natural buffer zones and wetlands replenishment adjacent to logging areas are effective techniques. Watershed construction activities such as port expansion, water diversions, channel deepening, and new channel construction must undergo a complete environmental assessment, coupled with predictive sediment resuspension and transport modeling, so alternative courses of action and activities to minimize the negative impacts of sedimentation may be chosen.
Sediment impoverishment is equally important in coastal areas, such as coastal Louisiana where twenty-five to thirty square miles of wetlands are being lost each year. This loss primarily results from the Mississippi River levee system halting the annual natural replenishment of sediments that rebuilds the marsh system. Engineered water diversion can replace sediment in the natural system to decrease losses due to dams, levees, jetties, and other structures built to control the flow of water and thus sediments. Proper placement of sediments from navigation dredging can also be a useful abatement technique.
Sediments are absolutely necessary for aquatic plant and animal life. Managed properly, sediments are a resource; improper sediment management results in the destruction of aquatic habitat that would have otherwise depended on their presence. The United Nations Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection recently recognized that on a global basis, changes in sediment flows are one of the five most serious problems affecting the quality and uses of the marine and coastal environment.
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Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environment Protection. (2001). "Sea of Troubles." GESAMP Study No. 70. Geneva: United Nations Environmental Programme. Also available from http://gesamp.imo.org/no70 .
USDA-ARS National Sedimentation Laboratory. Available from http://www.sedlab.olemiss.edu .
Robert M. Engler