The effect of the Lions River floodplain on downstream water quality.
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Wetlands provide important ecosystem services, including the purification of water. The uMngeni catchment is an important basin providing water to the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban, South Africa’s second largest economic hub. However, there are rising concerns over the deterioration of water quality in Midmar Dam, a large impoundment within this basin. The Lions River, one of the main tributaries to Midmar Dam, transports pollutants from its catchment, as well as the Mooi River catchment through the recently implemented Mooi-Mgeni transfer scheme (MMTS) into the impoundment. This study aims to establish a baseline ecological integrity and effect on downstream water quality of the Lions River floodplain, an important, but degraded, wetland in the uMngeni catchment, to provide a guide for the planning and implementation of rehabilitation interventions. A comprehensive assessment of the wetland’s structure was undertaken using vegetation and soil parameters, mapped and compared with an interpretation of landuse change within the wetland based on historical aerial photographs. The wetland’s impact on downstream water quality was assessed by sampling water at various points in the Lions River channel through the floodplain over a period of one year. The study found that the wetland’s ecological integrity has decreased due historical landuse in the floodplain. A comparison of soil wetness indicators which reflect the historic extent of the floodplain and vegetation wetness indicators which reflect the current extent of the floodplain suggest that although localised drying out of some areas has occurred, most of the historical floodplain area still supports wetland conditions. Wetness indicators of soil and vegetation indicate a transformation in the wetland’s water regime. A moderate to high abundance of ruderal and alien invasive species in 61% of the floodplain, particularly the drier areas of the floodplain, further indicate a reduction in ecosystem health. Hydrological processes emerge as the key drivers of species composition and historical landuse in the floodplain. Water quality results indicate that total oxidised nitrogen decreased from upstream to downstream whilst ammonia concentrations remained stable at all the sampling points. Soluble reactive phosphorus concentrations increased, while total phosphorus concentrations decreased from upstream to downstream. This study highlighted the importance of detailed field studies and understanding for rehabilitation planning to return ecosystems to their natural function.