Hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands have been lost in the U.S. in the past few decades. More than two-thirds of this loss occurred along the Gulf of Mexico.
As the largest private owner of wetlands in the U.S., ConocoPhillips views conservation as a key priority and has allocated over $6.8 million to restoration efforts since 2012. This includes activities such as hurricane protection, coastal restoration, wetlands mitigation and biomass carbon sequestration. Through partnerships with public, private and nonprofit organizations, the company has participated in more than 30 projects that have enhanced approximately 86,000 acres of wetlands. Marsh terraces, first implemented in the 1990s, are an important component of these efforts. New research on terrace sites throughout Louisiana by scientists at Mississippi State University (MSU) and Ducks Unlimited, including seven vital locations situated on ConocoPhillips Coastal Wetlands property, evaluates the effectiveness of marsh terraces — small manmade ridges of excavated soil constructed in shallow, open water areas. They are typically covered in vegetation and serve as a habitat for fish, ducks and other birds.
“Terraces are intended to provide numerous benefits in restoring coastal wetlands,” said Brian Davis, lead project investigator and associate professor in the MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center. “They reduce wave energy and erosion, protecting the coastline against flooding. They also provide habitat for waterfowl and various other aquatic species.”
Though more than 80 marsh terracing projects have been constructed in Texas and Louisiana, there is no real data to provide a clear understanding of the ideal techniques to use to optimize conservation. The MSU research team hopes to change that. Professors, graduate and undergraduate students will measure numerous geological and biological outcomes of constructed marsh terraces using, among other tools, visible and thermal imaging cameras deployed on unmanned aerial vehicles, and sonar sensors on unmanned surface vehicles. By assessing soil compaction and hydrology and compiling data on avian populations, they hope the data will answer a number of questions: Does a certain type of vegetation contribute to terrace longevity? Do various bird populations respond better to a specific type of vegetation? And does terrace shape and/or configuration impact efficacy?
“The ultimate goal of this project is to develop best management practices for marsh terrace design to inform engineering and construction plans,” Davis said. “The hydrodynamic models will allow us to determine how future terraces will perform and persist and how to best allocate resources for greatest future impact. The real value of the partnership with ConocoPhillips is that we are collaborating to better understand restoration efforts, which has broad, long-term benefits.”
Work in the field will continue through 2020, and data will be ongoing for an additional year or so. Researchers intend to share their findings to maximize coastal restoration and protection efforts that promote sustainable and productive ecosystems across the entire Gulf Coast region.