AbstractActive deepening of tidal channels usually results in the alteration of the vertical and the horizontal tide. This may lead to concurrent significant increases in mean suspended matter concentrations (SPM) in coastal plain estuaries, the turbidity maximum (ETM) included. This is exemplified by an extensive analysis of the Ems estuary, a prototypical heavily stressed estuary in the Dutch-German border area. Measurements show that the SPM concentrations in the lower reaches of the estuary have increased an average of 2- to 3-fold between 1954 and 2005, with a 10-fold increase observed in the upper estuary (tidal river). Longitudinal profiles of surface SPM demonstrate that the ETM has moved upstream by up to 25 km and has broadened into a zone 30 km in length which extends into the freshwater tidal river. On an annual scale, variations in freshwater discharge significantly influence the formation and breakdown of the ETM: during low river discharge the ETM approaches equilibrium over 2–3 months, whilst elevated river discharges relocate the ETM downstream over several weeks.
An exploratory, semi-analytical model is calibrated to simulate the equilibrium SPM distribution in the upper estuary during five time periods from 1965 to 2005, using archival bathymetric and tidal data. Results suggest that the deepening of tidal channels and a reduction in hydraulic drag have most likely resulted in a landward shift of the SPM trapping location. The measured increase in SPM concentrations and the development of fluid mud around the 1990s likely contributed to reduced mixing and bottom drag, creating a feedback loop that further altered tidal and SPM dynamics. It is argued that the removal of some non-erodible (consolidated) layers in the lower reaches of the estuary has created new internal sediment sources that may be responsible for feeding the observed high SPM concentrations, rather than increased sediment input from the boundaries. All findings are based on and supported by measured short-term seasonal fluctuations, as well as long-term developments of yearly averaged concentrations in the longitudinal SPM distribution.