A hydrological investigation of three Devon sand dune systems : Braunton Burrows, Northam Burrows and Dawlish Warren
In 1993 concerns were expressed by English Nature that Devon's three largest sand dune systems Braunton Burrows, Northam Burrows and Dawlish Warren were drying out to the detriment of the dune habitat flora and fauna. Research was therefore required to understand how these systems functioned hydrologically, to determine whether they were drying out and if so to recommend sustainable management options aimed at reinstating former water levels, or preventing any further lowering of the water tables. At Braunton water table elevations have been monitored on a monthly basis by the Nature Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy Council and English Nature since 1972. These data were invaluable in describing the spatial and temporal hydrological characteristics and functioning of the groundwater system. Braunton Burrows was the main study site of the research. At both Northam and Dawlish, at the start of the fieldwork programme a dipwell monitoring network was installed and water table elevations were recorded weekly. Hydrological characteristics of each dune system were related to temporal variability in effective precipitation, the tide, the underlying geology and sediment properties. The groundwater system at Braunton was mounded, with effective inputs accumulating over an impermeable basal layer close to mean sea level. The system was very sensitive to seasonal variability in effective precipitation. At the centre of the groundwater mound, during the winter months, the elevation of the water table was 10 in above OD. The groundwater mound was asymmetric, with the highest water table elevations occurring along the eastern margin of the system. The transitional zone from dune sands to marshland, of a lower permeability, was restricting the inland lateral drainage regime and was controlling both the shape and elevation of the water table. At Northam the groundwater system was also mounded and again the shape and elevation of the water table were dependent upon effective precipitation. Unfortunately the monitoring network at Dawlish proved insufficient to describe either the shape or elevation of the groundwater table. Within the smaller systems of Northam and Dawlish variable sediment properties lead to intra-site variability in annual cyclical water table fluctuations. A prominent trend in the long-term water table data for Braunton Burrows was the general overall decline in the elevation of the water table from 1983 to mid 1992. With precipitation as the primary source of groundwater recharge, consecutive years with below average effective precipitation (1983-1992) was undoubtedly the primary cause, but was exacerbated by the drainage improvement works carried out on West Boundary Drain in 1983. Scrub growth, artificial drainage of the golf course and marine erosion were also possibly influencing the groundwater drainage regime. At Northam and Dawlish, without historical data it was not possible to determine if the systems were drying out, however factors influencing annual cyclical water table elevations were identified. Again climate was the key variable controlling the long-term elevation of the water table and undoubtedly the dry spell between 1983 and 1992 would have had repercussions on the elevation of the water table within these two systems. At Northam the drainage ditch network and reduced tidal inundation were the other main factors influencing groundwater levels. At Dawlish the golf course pump drainage system and scrub encroachment were effectively reducing annual groundwater recharge. At Braunton a numerical groundwater flow model was used as a predictive management tool, to assist in the recommendation of sustainable water level management options. A range of commercial groundwater flow models were reviewed and Visual MODFLOW, incorporating the original United States Geological Survey's MODFLOW code, with a fully integrated pre and post processor, was selected as the most suitable model for the Braunton scenario. The modelling exercise had three objectives; to test whether a commercial model such as Visual MODFLOW could be applied successfully to simulate the hydrology of Braunton Burrows; to gain further detail on the hydrological functioning of the system and ultimately if the model was calibrated to test a set of management scenarios to predict the hydro-ecological consequences of introducing new management practices into the system. Having identified the most probable factors influencing water table elevations within each dune system, sustainable hydrological management options were recommended with the aim of raising water levels, or preventing any further decline in water table elevations. The management options afforded nature conservation the highest priority, but also took into consideration the long-term requirements of all the other land user groups.A t Braunton when formulating the managemenrt ecommendationst he modelling predictions were also taken into consideration. Potential areas for future research were also identified. Water level monitoring should continue at all three sites, so that the longer-term impact of any water level management strategies implemented as a result of this research can be evaluated. Also at both Northam and Dawlish a more detailed analysis of the geology and sediment properties would be invaluable in providing a more comprehensive hydrological description of the functioning of the groundwater systems. The Braunton groundwater model could be developed further, addressing and overcoming problems encountered in this study and evaluating a wider range of water level management scenarios. As a result of this research far more is understood about the hydrological functioning of Devon's three largest dune systems and the recommendation of sustainable remedial/restorative water level management options will help to ensure that these ecologically diverse habitats are conserved for future generations. This research has also provided both the applied and theoretical framework to address water resource management problems within small and large scale dune systems around the shores of Great Britain.