Science Inventory

Runnels mitigate marsh drowning in microtidal salt marshes


Watson, E., W. Ferguson, L. Champlin, J. White, N. Ernst, H. Sylla, B. Wilburn, AND C. Wigand. Runnels mitigate marsh drowning in microtidal salt marshes. Frontiers in Environmental Science. Frontiers, Lausanne, Switzerland, 10:987246, (2022).


Coastal marshes in the northeastern US are vulnerable to accelerated sea level rise rates and an increase in frequency and severity of storms. Many coastal marshes in the northeast are drowning in place due to rising seal level. One proposed restoration practice to mitigate drowning is to construct shallow ditches or runnels to provide drainage of excessive ponding on the marsh platform. In this study the use of runnels to mitigate drowning of microtidal marshes in RI was studied in a controlled experiment. In this large-scale restoration study, there were runneled sites, control sites, and monitoring before and after the construction of the runnels. While we acknowledge that runnels may be a temporary solution to marsh drowning, we also found that they are also quick acting, with drops in groundwater appearing as soon as the runnels were installed, and vegetation reestablishment occurring in two to three years. Runnels also might be a more feasible climate change adaptation technique where sediment addition to build marsh elevation is not possible, due to cost, distance from sediment sources, or concern about disturbance. In addition, runnels may promote reductions in the presence of marsh-breeding mosquitos. We recommend construction of runnels in microtidal marshes as one of the many tools that will be needed to address the effects of accelerated sea level rise in some coastal areas over the next century.


As a symptom of accelerated sea level rise and historic impacts to tidal hydrology from agricultural and mosquito control activities, coastal marshes in the Northeastern U.S. are experiencing conversion to open water through edge loss, widening and headward erosion of tidal channels, and the formation and expansion of interior ponds. These interior ponds often form in high elevation marsh, confounding the notion applied in predictive modeling that salt marshes convert to open water when elevation falls below a critical surface inundation threshold. The installation of tidal channel extension features, or runnels, is a technique that has been implemented to reduce water levels and permit vegetation reestablishment in drowning coastal marshes, although there are limited data available to recommend its advisability. We report on 5 years of vegetation and hydrologic monitoring of two locations where a total of 600-m of shallow (0.15–0.30-m in diameter and depth) runnels were installed in 2015 and 2016 to enhance drainage, in the Pettaquamscutt River Estuary, in southern Rhode Island, United States. Results from this Before-After Control-Impact (BACI) designed study found that runnel installation successfully promoted plant recolonization, although runnels did not consistently promote increases in high marsh species presence or diversity. Runnels reduced the groundwater table (by 0.07–0.12 m), and at one location, the groundwater table experienced a 2-fold increase in the fraction of the in-channel tidal range that was observed in the marsh water table. We suggest that restoration of tidal hydrology through runnel installation holds promise as a tool to encourage revegetation and extend the lifespan of drowning coastal marshes where interior ponds are expanding. In addition, our study highlights the importance of considering the rising groundwater table as an important factor in marsh drowning due to expanding interior ponds found on the marsh platform.

Record Details:

Product Published Date: 11/03/2022
Record Last Revised: 11/07/2022
OMB Category: Other
Record ID: 356096