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Impacts of Coastal Development on the Ecology of Tidal Creek Ecosystems of the US Southeast Including Consequences to Humans


Sanger, Denise M.; Blair, Anne; DiDonato, Guy T.; Washburn, Travis; Jones, Sarah E.; Riekerk, George; Wirth, Edward F.; Stewart, Jill R.; White, David L.; & Vandiver, Lisa, et al. (2015). Impacts of Coastal Development on the Ecology of Tidal Creek Ecosystems of the US Southeast Including Consequences to Humans. Estuaries and Coasts, 38(Suppl. 1), S49-66. PMCID: PMC6660006


Upland areas of southeastern United States tidal creek watersheds are popular locations for development, and they form part of the estuarine ecosystem characterized by high economic and ecological value. The primary objective of this work was to define the relationships between coastal development, with its concomitant land use changes and associated increases in nonpoint source pollution loading, and the ecological condition of tidal creek ecosystems including related consequences to human populations and coastal communities. Nineteen tidal creek systems, located along the southeastern US coast from southern North Carolina to southern Georgia, were sampled in the summer, 2005 and 2006. Within each system, creeks were divided into two primary segments based upon tidal zoning—intertidal (i.e., shallow, narrow headwater sections) and subtidal (i.e., deeper and wider sections)—and then watersheds were delineated for each segment. Relationships between coastal development, concomitant land use changes, nonpoint source pollution loading, the ecological condition of tidal creek ecosystems, and the potential impacts to human populations and coastal communities were evaluated. In particular, relationships were identified between the amount of impervious cover (indicator of coastal development) and a range of exposure and response measures including increased chemical contamination of the sediments, increased pathogens in the water, increased nitrate/nitrite levels, increased salinity range, decreased biological productivity of the macrobenthos, alterations to the food web, increased flooding potential, and increased human risk of exposure to pathogens and harmful chemicals. The integrity of tidal creeks, particularly the headwaters or intertidally dominated sections, was impaired by increases in nonpoint source pollution associated with sprawling urbanization (i.e., increases in impervious cover). This finding suggests that these habitats are valuable early warning sentinels of ensuing ecological impacts and potential public health and flooding risk from sprawling coastal development. The results also validate the use of a conceptual model with impervious cover thresholds for tidal creek systems in the southeast region.


Reference Type

Journal Article

Year Published


Journal Title

Estuaries and Coasts


Sanger, Denise M.
Blair, Anne
DiDonato, Guy T.
Washburn, Travis
Jones, Sarah E.
Riekerk, George
Wirth, Edward F.
Stewart, Jill R.
White, David L.
Vandiver, Lisa
Holland, A. Frederick