Nutrient Supply to Floodplains


Flooding is a natural process that replenishes soil and nutrients to floodplains. Of course, floodplains are ideal sites for agriculture – they are flat, water is accessible, and – at least prior to modification of the system by levees or dams – the soils are among the most fertile on Earth due to recurring flooding that deposits nutrient-rich fine-grained sediments. Historically, these are the sites of major agricultural and population centers, including the “Fertile Crescent” along the Tigris-Euphrates floodplain (now largely barren due to long-term effects of irrigation-based agriculture and flood prevention), and the Nile Floodplain (see The Nile River and Aswan Dam below). Likewise, most major modern agricultural production is localized to floodplains - including the Central Valley of California, the Susquehanna River Valley, the upper Tigris-Euphrates basin, the Nile Valley, and the floodplains of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

Prevention of flooding through the combination of dams (which control river discharge) and levees (which artificially channelize flow and shunt it downstream so that it cannot spill onto the floodplain) is a strategy to limit the loss of crops and property, and allow development in otherwise flood-prone areas. This approach, while generally effective in limiting short-term losses, affects soil fertility, groundwater systems, and the health of downstream waterways in the longer-term. For example, flood prevention eliminates a major source of recharge to aquifers in valley-fill sediments that lie below the floodplain. Recurring floods also serve to flush salts that accumulate naturally in soils due to evaporation and transpiration (i.e. water is transported to the atmosphere by these processes, but even small amounts of dissolved salts remain in the soil). Reduction or elimination of this flushing can lead to soil salinization, with negative effects on soil fertility.

Perhaps most notably, by eliminating or limiting the replenishment of nutrients to the floodplain, imported fertilizer is required to grow crops. Excess fertilizer application, in turn, leads to runoff enriched in Nitrogen and Phosphates that affects aquatic species and can cause eutrophication of lakes and estuaries downstream. This is a longstanding problem that leads to algal blooms at river mouths, consumption of Oxygen by organic matter (dead algae), and ultimately to “dead zones” in these regions that affect fisheries (Figure 2).

Shows dissolved oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico Summer 2011, clearly demarcated dead zone extends along coastline near Louisana
Figure 2: Dissolved oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico in Summer, 2011. Note clearly demarcated “dead zone” extending along the Texas-Louisiana coastline.

Learning Checkpoint

1. Why are floodplains historically ideal for agriculture? List three reasons.

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ANSWER: Nutrient supply, soil replenishment, water supply, typically flat. Could also note that rivers provide transport pathway for produced goods.

2. What is the main negative effect of eliminating the replenishment of nutrients to floodplains on ecosystems and river health downstream?

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ANSWER: It leads to the addition of fertilizers and nutrients to the land, which in turn runs off to the river and ultimately the ocean. This leads to algal blooms that extract dissolved oxygen from the water, and cause hypoxic, or “dead” zones that impact fisheries and ecosystem health.