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Classification of Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats of the United States

Estuarine System

Definition. The Estuarine System (Fig. 3) consists of deepwater tidal habitats and adjacent tidal wetlands that are usually semienclosed by land but have open, partly obstructed, or sporadic access to the open ocean, and in which ocean water is at least occasionally diluted by freshwater runoff from the land. The salinity may be periodically increased above that of the open ocean by evaporation. Along some low-energy coastlines there is appreciable dilution of sea water. Offshore areas with typical estuarine plants and animals, such as red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) and eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica), are also included in the Estuarine System.3

Limits. The Estuarine System extends (1) upstream and landward to where ocean-derived salts measure less than 0.5 ‰ during the period of average annual low flow; (2) to an imaginary line closing the mouth of a river, bay, or sound; and (3) to the seaward limit of wetland emergents, shrubs, or trees where they are not included in (2). The Estuarine System also includes offshore areas of continuously diluted sea water.

Description. The Estuarine System includes both estuaries and lagoons. It is more strongly influenced by its association with land than is the Marine System. In terms of wave action, estuaries are generally considered to be low-energy systems (Chapman 1977:2).

Estuarine water regimes and water chemistry are affected by one or more of the following forces: oceanic tides, precipitation, freshwater runoff from land areas, evaporation, and wind. Estuarine salinities range from hyperhaline to oligohaline (Table 2). The salinity may be variable, as in hyperhaline lagoons (e.g., Laguna Madre, Texas) and most brackish estuaries (e.g., Chesapeake Bay, Virginia-Maryland); or it may be relatively stable, as in sheltered euhaline embayments (e.g., Chincoteague Bay, Maryland) or brackish embayments with partly obstructed access or small tidal range (e.g., Pamlico Sound, North Carolina). (For an extended discussion of estuaries and lagoons see Lauff 1967.)


Classes. Rock Bottom, Unconsolidated Bottom, Aquatic Bed, Reef, Streambed, Rocky Shore, Unconsolidated Shore, Emergent Wetland, Scrub-Shrub Wetland, and Forested Wetland.

GIF - Distinguishing Features of Habitats in Estuarine System
Fig. 3. Distinguishing features and examples of habitats in the Estuarine System. EHWS = extreme high water of spring tides; ELWS = extreme low water of spring tides.

3The Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 defines an estuary as "that part of a river or stream or other body of water having unimpaired connection with the open sea, where the sea-water is measurably diluted with freshwater derived from land drainage." The Act further states that "the term includes estuary-type areas of the Great Lakes." However, in the present system we do not consider areas of the Great Lakes as Estuarine.
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