Human interventions in river-estuary systems

A case study of the Loire, France

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Like many rivers around the world, the Loire river in France has a history of human interventions in order to facilitate navigation and port development. Next to affecting bed levels directly, the heavy modification of the river-estuary has induced significant changes in the hydrodynamic and morphodynamic behaviour of the Loire. As a result, the Loire river is experiencing an ongoing bed degradation. In the estuary, the interventions have led to an amplification of the tidal amplitude, a shift of the tidal and salt intrusion limit in upstream direction and a larger tidal asymmetry. According to Winterwerp and Wang (2013), this tidal deformation leads to an increased import of fine sediment in the estuary and a reduced hydraulic drag. This in turn enhances tidal deformation further. Due to this positive feedback mechanism the Loire estuary has evolved into a hyper-turbid state, associated with large suspended sediment concentrations and the formation of fluid mud.

The behaviour of the river-estuary on large temporal and spatial scales and its response to historical and possible future interventions is not yet sufficiently understood. Therefore, an idealized, computationally efficient, three-dimensional morphodynamic model of the river-estuary is developed with the FLOW module of the Delft3D software suite, in which the main processes influencing the morphology of the Loire river-estuary are included.

The current estuarine geometry, lacking the presence of large intertidal areas, induces a flood-dominant tidal signal. In the mouth of the estuary, the baroclinic pressure gradient introduces a mean landward-directed velocity near the bed and amplifies the mean seaward-directed velocity near the surface. This gravitational circulation causes the formation of an Estuarine Turbidity Maximum at the tip of the salt wedge, which is strengthened further by the flood-dominance of the tide. Model results confirm the feedback mechanism between tidal deformation, the import of fine sediment and the effective hydraulic drag as described above. However, next to tidal deformation, strengthening of the gravitational circulation also plays a large role in this mechanism for the Loire.

To mitigate bed degradation, several measures are simulated that decrease the transport capacity of the flow, increase the sediment supply or do both. Over the first 10 years, sediment nourishments are the most effective according to the model. However, after 100 years of simulation the removal of all groynes present within the domain leads to the most sedimentation relative to the reference scenario. To decrease the import of mud into the estuary, two measures have been investigated. Increasing bed levels in the main channel of the estuary mainly leads to a decrease of the tidal range, whereas restoring tidal flats turns the tide from flood- into ebb-dominant. In both cases, a decrease of the salt intrusion length and a significant weakening of the gravitational circulation occurs, leading to a tidally averaged export of fine sediment and very low mud concentrations.