The Ecogeomorphic Evolution of Louisana’s Wax Lake Delta

By Brittany Smith, Environmental Scientist at Princeton Hydro 

As a graduate student in the geology program at the University of Texas at Austin, I worked on a study that used remote sensing to explore links between coastal geomorphology and ecology at the Wax Lake Delta in Louisiana. In this blog, I provide a snapshot of my research, which was recently published in the journal Remote Sensing.


What is the Wax Lake Delta?

The Wax Lake Delta is a small, young river delta in Louisiana that began growing in the 1940s after the construction of the Wax Lake Outlet. In 1941 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug the Wax Lake Outlet from the Atchafalaya River – it extended out to the coastline and was designed to reduce the severity of floods in nearby Morgan City.

Image by NASA/Jesse Allen: While the Mississippi River Delta has been washing into the Gulf of Mexico and receding just to the west the Wax Lake and Atchafalaya River deltas (pictured above) are growing. Satellite imagery shows how the deltas have grown between 1984 (left) and 2014 (right).

This outlet provided a constant flow of water to be diverted from the river before reaching the banks of Morgan City, which had experienced several devastating floods. Approximately 40 percent of the Atchafalaya’s discharge gets channeled through the Wax Lake Outlet, which has the capacity to carry a maximum of 440,000 cubic feet per second.

Following the creation of the Wax Lake Outlet, the turbulent flow of water began to carry sediment down the outlet, which deposited at the mouth of the outlet and, over time, caused an underwater delta to grow. In just over 40 years, the Wax Lake Delta grew from nothing to an area twice the size of Manhattan. Research shows that it receives 34 million tons of sediment per year. Today, it spans roughly 7 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico and provides valuable habitat for a variety of animals.


The Why Behind the Research

Many coastal areas have been retreating or drowning as a result of subsidence and decreased sediment availability due to upstream dams and levees. According to the Population Reference Bureau, “Today, approximately 3 billion people — about half of the world’s population — live within 200 kilometers of a coastline. By 2025, that figure is likely to double.”

This population is increasingly vulnerable to flooding and erosion due to sea level rise and storms, especially in coastal Louisiana, where land loss is prevalent due to subsidence and decreased sediment supply.

The Wax Lake Delta is one of the few places in coastal Louisiana that is building rather than losing land, so is seen as an example of processes that could be applied elsewhere on the Gulf Coast to mitigate subsidence and restore coastal wetlands. Additionally, it is an ideal study site because it is relatively small, young enough that it has a good historic record, and has been largely unaltered by human activities.

This image depicts the study area: (a) The Wax Lake Delta (WLD, red square) is located at the terminus of the Wax Lake Outlet (blue line), which diverts water from the Atchafalaya River (purple line) in the U.S. state of Louisiana. The Atchafalaya is a distributary channel for the Mississippi (green line) and Red (red line) Rivers. (b) Image of WLD from 28-Sep-2010 by Landsat [88], for water level y = 0.35 m (NAVD88) at Camp Island gage (yellow dot) [93]. (c) Image of WLD from 24-Apr-2011 by Landsat [88], for water level y = 0.67 m (NAVD88) at Camp Island gage. WLD Pintail Island test case area outlined in white.


The Research in a Nutshell

Elevation is a very important variable in coastal ecosystems, as it controls how frequently a site is flooded. This in turn controls how frequently sediment can be delivered or removed from the site, and also what type of vegetation will grow there.

To understand how the Wax Lake Delta is growing, it would be ideal to have an understanding of how the topography has changed over time. Unfortunately, very little elevation data was available for the Wax Lake Delta, so I had to develop an indirect way of getting this information.

Photo Credit: Field and StreamWhat I did have available was a significant amount of Landsat satellite imagery. This was useful to me for two reasons: the delta is extremely flat and low-lying (less than 3 feet above sea level), and the tidal cycle typically fluctuates between 0-3 feet above mean sea level. This means that since each satellite image is taken at a different water level, different parts of the delta are exposed above the water in each picture. Taken together as a group over time, we can start to get a sense of which areas are higher and more likely to be exposed, and which areas are more likely to be flooded, and therefore at a lower elevation.

To do this in a quantitative way, I took all the images taken over a three year period and converted them to binary images, where land was classified as 1, and water classified as 0. I then added the images together, to create a composite image where pixels with higher values corresponded to areas that were exposed more frequently, and pixels with lower values were more frequently flooded.

Using water level data from a USGS gauge station that was installed at the delta in late 2008, I was able to develop a probability distribution of water levels. Taking these together – a probability map of flooding frequency and a probability distribution of water level elevations – I was able to create topographic maps based on the Landsat satellite imagery.

By performing this method over a number of years, patterns emerge about how the delta is evolving over time. The island changes from a relatively amorphous, unorganized shape to a defined outer levee and inner island platform.

Photo Credit: The National Wildlife FederationA deeper knowledge of the delta topography, allows us to look at connections to the delta ecology. We know that elevation controls hydrology and therefore plant growth, but we have also seen situations where plants can in-turn affect elevation by contributing organic matter to the soil, preventing erosion due to the root mat, or trapping sediment with their stems when sediment-laden water flows through.

In the case of salt marshes, previous studies have shown that if there is a feedback between the two, it occurs because a) plants tend to be most productive at a specific elevation and b) plants are in some way contributing to sediment accumulation relative to their productivity.

Photo Credit: USGSFor example, if a plant grows best at an elevation of two feet, it grows really densely at two feet, contributes more organic matter to the soil, bigger roots grow that help increase cohesion and reduce erosion, and the stems are denser and trap more sediment when the area is flooded. These all help increase the elevation of the marsh over time. However, if the elevation starts to get too high, the plant grows less densely, contributes less to the marsh surface, and the elevation will drop back down until the plant is happy again. Over time, the surface of the marsh will start to organize around these ideal elevations, creating a terraced effect with platforms corresponding to different plant types that do particularly well at that elevation.

When we look at how a transect down the center of the delta island has changed over time, we see that it goes from a relatively smooth, straight line, to a stepped system comparable to the models from other studies. When we compare the elevations of these platforms to the vegetation communities at the delta, we find that they correspond positively to high-marsh and low-marsh plants. This suggests that there is feedback occurring between plants and sediment accumulation at the delta.


In Conclusion

This research a) developed a new approach for investigating changes in coastal topography using satellite imagery, and b) confirmed that there is likely to be feedbacks between sediment deposition, marsh elevation, and vegetation growth. These feedbacks should be considered in any coastal wetland restoration and land building efforts.


Brittany Smith is an Environmental Scientist with an extensive background in hydrology and ecology. At Princeton Hydro, she has been involved in a wide variety of projects including stream assessments, wetland water budget modeling, soil field assessments, GIS analysis, permitting, and aquatic ecology. She holds a Master of Science in Geology with an emphasis in hydrology and geomorphology from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Bachelor of Science in Plant Biology from the University of California at Davis. Brittany has strong skills in data analysis and management, as well as experience in a broad range of field and laboratory techniques.


Study Data Leads to Healthier Wreck Pond Ecosystem

Wreck Pond is a tidal pond located on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in southern Monmouth County, New Jersey. The 73-acre pond, which was originally connected to the sea by a small and shifting inlet, got its name in the 1800s due to the numerous shipwrecks that occurred at the mouth of the inlet. The Sea Girt Lighthouse was built to prevent such accidents. In the 1930s, the inlet was filled in and an outfall pipe was installed, thus creating Wreck Pond. The outfall pipe allowed limited tidal exchange between Wreck Pond and the Atlantic Ocean.

In the 1960s, Wreck Pond flourished with wildlife and was a popular destination for recreational activities with tourists coming to the area mainly from New York City and western New Jersey. In the early spring, hundreds of river herring would migrate into Wreck Pond, travelling up its tributaries — Wreck Pond Brook, Hurleys Pond Brook and Hannabrand Brook — to spawn. During the summer, the pond was bustling with recreational activities like swimming, fishing, and sailing.

Over time, however, the combination of restricted tidal flow and pollution, attributable to increased development of the watershed, led to a number of environmental issues within the watershed, including impaired water quality, reduced fish populations, and flooding.

Throughout the Wreck Pond watershed, high stream velocities during flood conditions have caused the destabilization and erosion of stream banks, which has resulted in the loss of riparian vegetation and filling of wetlands. Discharge from Wreck Pond during heavy rains conveys nonpoint source pollutants that negatively impact nearby Spring Lake and Sea Girt beaches resulting in beach closings due to elevated bacteria counts. Watershed erosion and sediment transported with stormwater runoff has also contributed to excessive amounts of sedimentation and accumulations of settled sediment, not only within Wreck Pond, but at the outfall pipe as well. This sediment further impeded tidal flushing and the passage of anadromous fish into and out of Wreck Pond.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused wide-spread destruction throughout New Jersey and the entire eastern seaboard. The storm event also caused a major breach of the Wreck Pond watershed’s dune beach system and failure of the outfall pipe. The breach formed a natural inlet next to the outfall pipe, recreating the connection to the Atlantic Ocean that once existed. This was the first time the inlet had been open since the 1930s, and the reopening cast a new light on the benefits of additional flow between the pond and the ocean.

Hurricane Sandy sparked a renewed interest in reducing flooding impacts throughout the watershed, including efforts to restore the water quality and ecology of Wreck Pond. The breach caused by Hurricane Sandy was not stable, and the inlet began to rapidly close due to the deposition of beach sand and the discharge of sediment from Wreck Pond and its watershed.

Princeton Hydro and HDR generated the data used to support the goals of the feasibility study through a USACE-approved model of Wreck Pond that examined the dynamics of Wreck Pond along with the water bodies directly upland, the watershed, and the offshore waters in the immediate vicinity of the ocean outfall. The model was calibrated and verified using available “normalized” tide data. Neighboring Deal Lake, which is also tidally connected to the ocean by a similar outfall pipe, was used as the “reference” waterbody. The Wreck Pond System model evaluated the hydraulic characteristics of Wreck Pond with and without the modified outfall pipe, computed pollutant inputs from the surrounding watershed, and predicted Wreck Pond’s water quality and ecological response. The calibrated model was also used to investigate the effects and longevity of dredging and other waterway feature modifications.

As part of the study, Princeton Hydro and HDR completed hazardous, toxic, and radioactive waste (HTRW) and geotechnical investigations of Wreck Pond’s sediment to assess potential flood damage reduction and ecological restoration efforts of the waterbody. The investigation included the progression of 10 sediment borings conducted within the main body of Wreck Pond, as well as primary tributaries to the pond. The borings, conducted under the supervision of our geotechnical staff, were progressed through the surgical accumulated sediment, not the underlying parent material. Samples were collected for analysis by Princeton Hydro’s AMRL-accredited (AASHTO Materials Reference Library) and USACE-certified laboratory. In accordance with NJDEP requirements, sediment samples were also forwarded to a subcontracted analytical laboratory for analysis of potential nonpoint source pollutants.

In the geotechnical laboratory, the samples were subjected to geotechnical indexing tests, including grain size, organic content, moisture content, and plasticity/liquid limits. For soil strength parameters, the in-field Standard Penetration Test (SPT), as well as laboratory unconfined compression tests, were performed on a clay sample to provide parameters for slope stability modeling.

The culvert construction and sediment dredging were completed at the end of 2016. Continued restoration efforts, informed and directed by the data developed through Princeton Hydro’s feasibility study, are helping to reduce the risk of flooding to surrounding Wreck Pond communities, increase connectivity between the pond and ocean, and improve water quality. The overall result is a healthier, more diverse, and more resilient Wreck Pond ecosystem.

During the time of the progression of study by the USACE, the American Littoral Society and the towns of Spring Lake and Sea Girt were also progressing their own restoration effort and completed the implementation of an additional culvert to the Atlantic Ocean.  The American Littoral Society was able to utilize the data, analysis, and modeling results developed by the USACE to ensure the additional culvert would increase tidal flushing and look to future restoration projects within Wreck Pond.

American Littoral Society


To learn more about our geotechnical engineering services, click here.

Conservation Spotlight: Reducing Flood Risk and Restoring Wetlands in Jamaica Bay

Located in Queens, New York on the northern shore of Jamaica Bay, Spring Creek South contains approximately 237 acres of undeveloped land, including wetlands and 2.4 miles of coastline. The site is bounded by the Howard Beach residential neighborhood in Queens, a commercial area along Cross Bay Boulevard, the Belt Parkway, and Jamaica Bay. The northwest section of Spring Creek South is part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area, and is largely comprised of small patches of degraded tidal marsh and disturbed and degraded upland ecosystems.

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy drove a catastrophic storm surge into the New Jersey and New York coastlines. Spring Creek South and the surrounding community of Howard Beach experienced record flooding and damage to property and critical infrastructure. Storm tides caused damage and erosion along the shoreline and in the salt marsh area, degrading important habitat and leaving the site vulnerable to invasive species.

Hurricane Sandy Aftermath at Howard Beach, taken 10/30/2012 by Pam Andrade

The New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (NYSDHSES) was awarded funding from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to restore Spring Creek South. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) New York District, serving as project administrator, contracted Princeton Hydro to provide ecosystem restoration services. The goal of the project is to reduce future flood risk exposure while also protecting, restoring, and improving the quality and function of ecological systems; improving stormwater management and water quality; and enhancing the park’s visitor experience.

To achieve this goal, the project team is using an integrated approach that involves utilizing green infrastructure to create a natural barrier for the community and reduce the risks of coastal storms. Project activities include berm construction and the restoration of tidal marsh, creation of freshwater wetland forest, and creation of maritime shrub, forest, and grassland habitats, as well as stabilization of the existing shoreline.

On December 31, 2018, we completed Phase One of the project, which entails engineering design and preliminary permitting. More specifically, we’ve provided conceptual planning; analysis of subsurface soils for geotechnical properties and hazardous waste; coastal and freshwater wetland delineations; biological benchmarking analysis; and the development of sea level rise curves and two-dimensional hydrologic and hydraulic coastal modeling. As part of the hydrology study, we analyzed what the site could be expected to look like in 50 years due to climate changes and sea level rise. Our engineering design was also brought to 65% completion.

We also obtained permits, prepared the Environmental Assessment (EA), and oversaw the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The EA received a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) from FEMA, which means the environmental analysis and interagency review concluded that the project has no significant impacts on the quality of the environment.

Due to the complex nature of this project and its location, we are coordinating with a variety of different entities, including the local Howard Beach Community Board, the FAA (proximity to JFK International Airport), Port Authority, USACE, NOAA Fisheries, USFWS, USEPA, NYSDEC, NYC DEP, the National Park Service, HDR Engineering and WSP Engineering.

Phase Two of the project is the construction phase, which is expected to take about two years to complete. A key part of the Spring Creek South construction activities is the restoration of approximately 40 acres of tidal marsh, which is anticipated to improve water quality locally by stabilizing sediment, reducing erosion, and filtering dissolved particulate materials. The project team will restore existing coastline areas and install a salt marsh along the shoreline. Planted with native flora, like Spartina alterniflora, a perennial deciduous grass found in intertidal wetlands, the coastal salt marsh will help to stabilize sediment. Additionally, removing invasive species like Phragmites australis from the area and replacing it with native plant species will increase the ability for native vegetation to colonize the site, improve vegetative diversity, and reduce fire risk in the park.

A forested wetland area and berm will also be created in order to provide the surrounding communities with natural shields and buffers to future storms. The berm, with an elevation of 19 feet (NAVD88), will help to manage the risk of storm surge flooding caused by coastal storms. The forested wetland area will also provide improved stormwater runoff storage, naturally filter stormwater, and, via flap gates, direct its flow toward Jamaica Bay, away from residential and commercial properties.

These measures will help to dissipate wind and wave energy, increase shoreline resilience, improve stormwater management at the site, and create habitat that increases the ecological value and biodiversity at the site, while providing resilience benefits. Restoration activities will benefit vulnerable and rare ecological communities by producing localized environmental enhancements, including improving water quality and creating and restoring habitat. The project also increases opportunities for recreational uses such as wildlife viewing/photography, fishing, and nature study.

Princeton Hydro specializes in the planning, design, permitting, implementing, and maintenance of wetland rehabilitation projects. To learn more about some of our ecosystem restoration and enhancement services, visit: