The impacts of long-term flow reductions and an extreme drought on a large, permanently open estuary, and implications for setting the ecological reserve
Keywords:Berg Estuary, environmental flow requirements, estuary health, water quality, drought, climate change
Environmental water requirements (EWRs) are set for South Africa’s estuaries to ensure that they are maintained in a state that is both achievable and commensurate with their level of conservation and economic importance. However, these EWRs are typically determined on the basis of models and scenario analyses that require extrapolation beyond existing data and experience, especially if climate change is considered. In the case of the Berg Estuary, South Africa, available data on changes in freshwater flow and water quality span a period of at least five decades (1970s–present) during which significant reduction in flows has been observed. Monitoring data also cover an extreme 3-year drought, from 2015−2017, which provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of severe freshwater starvation (zero-flow for an extended period) on this large, permanently open system. Our analyses show that mean annual runoff (MAR) under present-day conditions has been reduced to around 50% of that under reference (natural) conditions and that reduction in runoff during the low-flow season (summer) has been more severe (80–86% reduction) than for the high-flow season (39–42% reduction). The salinity gradient now extends much further upstream than under reference conditions. Hypersaline conditions along with a reverse salinity gradient were recorded in the estuary for the first time ever during the drought of 2015/17. Levels of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (NOx) reaching the estuary from the catchment have increased dramatically (6–7 fold) over the past five decades, dissolved reactive phosphate (PO4) slightly less so (2–3 fold), but ammonia (NH4) hardly at all. Increases in nutrient input from the catchment in the high-flow season are also much more dramatic than in the low-flow season. The estuary is no longer compliant with gazetted EWRs and requires urgent interventions to restore the quantity and quality of freshwater it receives.
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Copyright (c) 2022 Barry M Clark, Jane K Turpie, James DS Cullis, Jessica Dawson, Louise Dobinson, Marlé M Kunneke, Annabel Horn
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