The dilution and loss of wetland function associated with conversion to open water

Daniel L. Childers, John W. Day

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Some degree of wetland loss characterizes most coastal systems of the United States. This loss is generally reported as a decrease in wetland area, but most coastal land loss entails wetland submergence and conversion to open water. This concurrent increase in the area of aquatic habitat decreases the wetland:open water ratio, effectively diluting the area of remaining wetland relative to the aquatic system. The functional loss of intertidal wetlands to the ecosystem associated with this dilution effect may significantly alter ecological functions dependent on the interactive coupling of wetland and aquatic habitats. The magnitude of functional loss is strongly dependent on the wetland:water ratio of an estuary. In estuaries with open bay-type morphologies, the open water area is already large and functional loss of wetland by additional dilution may be only slightly greater than the areal wetland loss. Where estuaries are wetland-dominated, however, conversion of even a small percentage of wetland to water drastically alters the wetland:water ratio. In these cases, functional losses by dilution are much greater than the rate of areal wetland loss. In the Barataria Basin estuary, Louisiana, between 1967 and 1987, 15.4% of the salt marsh was lost (assuming a loss rate of 0.8% y-1 of the remaining marsh). We estimated that this 15% loss of salt marsh, by conversion to open water, may have resulted in a 27% reduction in the supply of inorganic nutrients and organic matter to the estuarine water column by the marsh, simply due to the dilution effects of the changed wetland:open water ratio. Functional losses of this magnitude may have serious implications to the estuarine ecosystem where intertidal wetlands support aquatic productivity by exporting nutrients and energy or where intertidal wetlands buffer aquatic eutrophication by importing excess nutrients and organic matter. It is conceivable that an estuary characterized by wetland loss may reach a point where, although some wetland remains, its functional value to the ecosystem is essentially gone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)163-171
Number of pages9
JournalWetlands Ecology and Management
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1991
Externally publishedYes


  • areal loss
  • dilution
  • estuary
  • flux
  • functional loss
  • habitat
  • nutrients
  • wetlands

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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