Wetlands in the Mississippi River deltaic plain are deteriorating(1) in part because levees and control structures starve them of sediment(2-4). In spring 2011 a record-breaking flood brought discharge on the lower Mississippi River to dangerous levels, forcing managers to divert up to 3,500 m(3) s(-1) of water to the Atchafalaya River Basin(5). Here we use field-calibrated satellite data to quantify differences in inundation and sediment-plume patterns between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River. We assess the impact of these extreme outflows on wetland sedimentation, and use in situ data collected during the historic flood to characterize the Mississippi plume's hydrodynamics and suspended sediment. We show that a focused, high-momentum jet emerged from the leveed Mississippi, and delivered sediment far offshore. In contrast, the plume from the Atchafalaya was more diffuse; diverted water inundated a large area, and sediment was trapped within the coastal current. The largest sedimentation, of up to several centimetres, occurred in the Atchafalaya Basin despite the larger sediment load carried by the Mississippi. Sediment accumulation was lowest along the shoreline between the two river sources. We conclude that river-mouth hydrodynamics and wetland sedimentation patterns are mechanistically linked, providing results that are relevant for plans to restore deltaic wetlands using artificial diversions(2-4,6-8).
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