The Effects of Erosion-control Structures and Gully Erosion on Groundwater Dynamics Along the Kromrivier, Eastern Cape, South Africa

University essay from Stockholms universitet/Institutionen för naturgeografi

Abstract: The Palmiet wetlands located along the Kromrivier in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa have experienced severe degradation through gully erosion during the past decennia which has been threatening the water quality and water security of large towns in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan hub. Water scarcity is a growing problem in this region as a result of land degradation and growing erratic rainfall patterns. The main causes of wetland degradation are argued to be land use and land cover change. With the aim of protecting the wetlands along the Kromrivier a total of eleven large gabion and concrete erosion-control structures were constructed between the 2002 and 2013 by the government initiate Working for Wetlands. This study aims to map the groundwater table in order to derive how erosion-control structures and gully erosion affect groundwater dynamics along the Kromrivier. This was achieved by several steps. Firstly, water table elevations were measured along several transects by installing a series of piezometers which allowed do investigate how the structures affected the water table. This also allowed for a comparison in groundwater dynamics between eroded and non-eroded reaches so that effects of gully erosion could be identified and potential causes discussed. Secondly, the analysis of aerial images allowed for the development of the aerial extent of the Palmiet wetland and gullies to be seen over a ten year period and longitudinal profiles provided specific characteristics of the wetland and gullies. Lastly, particle size distribution and organic matter content were analyzed as groundwater flow and gully erosion can vary greatly depending on soil characteristics. The hydraulic gradient was highest in proximity to the structures as a result of the created potential induced by the drop in surface water elevation. The radius of influence to where the structures were affected the water table was estimated to be approximately 40 m from the channel. Further away from the channel, the gradual slope of the water table indicated that the porous gabion side walls of the structures did not affect the water table. The groundwater flow is determined by Darcy's Law and the relatively flat water table along the non-eroded reaches of site A displayed local drainage points, thereby indicating variations in the local flow direction. In May the water table along the non-eroded reaches was sloping away from the channel resulting in an area of groundwater discharge with respect to the channel. Not only was the water table generally higher during August, the regime had also changed, indicating a potentially large seasonal variability. Along the eroded reaches downstream from the structures the water table was above the gully bottom during both months resulting in an area of groundwater recharge with respect to the channel. Also here the regime had changed from an approximately constant hydraulic gradient sloping towards the channel during May to a water table with a divide in flow direction. Since their implementation in 2003, the structures have been effective with respect to preventing the headcut in the main channel from migrating further upstream. However, the gullies downstream of the structures had significantly increased in width between 2003 and 2013 and the Palmiet wetland had also slightly decreased in size during the same period. However, it was unclear whether this decrease was part of the longer term ongoing trend or part of a shorter term cycle and/or seasonal fluctuation. For a gully bank to collapse, the shear strength of the slip surface needs to be exceeded and this often occurs because of an increase in pore water pressurewhich causes a reduction in shear strength. A large gully height of up to 4 m with nearly vertical slopes, a water table above the gully bottom and an increase in moisture content between May and August indicated that it is not unlikely that a high pore water pressure. played a significant role in the slumping of the gully walls. The two structures together were responsible for an surface water elevation difference of 7.76 m. Through damming this resulted in an elevated water table in the upstream Palmiet wetland, thereby increasing the saturation and promoting diffuse flow across the wetland. However, the structures also trap most of the sediment in upstream direction which appears to have resulted in the de-stabilization of the downstream streambed at site A as these eroded reaches now receive a significantly lower sediment load. By increasing the retention volume in the wetland, the structures also facilitated in ensuring flood retention as the wetland could now hold more water during high flows, thereby cutting off the peak flow. As gully erosion is known to occur during periods of high flow it is not unreasonable to argue that slumping of the gully walls would have been more severe without the structures in place. In this sense the structures increase the water quality and decrease the flux of sediment where the latter leads to a decrease in the sedimentation rate of the downstream Churchill Dam. Consequently, this contributes to securing the fresh water supply to towns in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan hub. The discovery of Palmiet rests up to 2.6 m below the surface indicated that cycles of gully erosion followed by the re-establishment of Palmiet have been occurring in this valley for thousands of years. However, it seemed that land use and land cover changes had accelerated gully erosion during the past decades resulting in a loss of Palmiet wetland at a rate which was beyond 'natural'. Even though the structures could be seen as disruptions of long term natural cycles, they are in favor of the well-being of mankind as they protect the wetlands to a certain extent. The main results of this study provided a basic understanding of how the water table behaves in response to the structures and along eroded and non-eroded reaches of the Kromrivier. Furthermore, this study discussed the larger scale affects of the structures and showed how the gullies and the aerial extent of the Palmiet wetland have evolved since the implementation of the structures in 2003. In order to manage these Palmiet wetlands more effectively in the future, it is highly important that groundwater dynamics, gully erosion and the size and health of the wetland are annually monitored in order to get a more accurate idea of how effective these structures are. This new obtained knowledge could also assist in managing other peat lands in South Africa more effectively. 

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