Hydrological modification, saltwater intrusion, and tree water use of a Pterocarpus officinalis swamp in Puerto Rico Academic Article uri icon


  • Tidal freshwater forested wetlands occupy a narrow ecological space determined by the balance between saltwater and freshwater inputs to the system. However, this balance is not well understood. In the Caribbean, tidal freshwater-forested wetlands dominated by Pterocarpus officinalis are vulnerable to changes in tidal influence and freshwater inputs. In this setting, the seasonal interactions of saltwater and freshwater inputs create less than ideal conditions for these forests to survive. Hence, it is crucial to have a better understanding of the hydrologic context of these and other tidal freshwater forested wetlands. We examined the extent of tidal forcing and saltwater influence in the largest Pterocarpus swamp of Puerto Rico by installing automated water level and conductivity recorders across a tidal creek transect at four different distances from the ocean, and by using water stable isotopes ratios (D, 18O) as natural tracers to determine the most important freshwater sources for tree transpiration. Records of water level and salinity revealed that the amount of rainfall was most influential on saltwater wedge migration in the creek for locations at the front and back of the tidal network, but that tidal dynamics were most influential at the middle section of the tidal network. Saltwater intrusion into the deepest parts of the tidal network was most prominent during sustained dry periods. Isotopic ratios of the surface water samples in the forest revealed that most of the water there was derived from freshwater runoff, but there was a seasonal change in its relative contribution to the forest hydrology. During the dry season, high values suggested the presence of runoff-derived water that had undergone evaporation, and saline influences were found in locations where past deforestation created preferential pathways for this water. During both seasons, 18O values of groundwater revealed the influence of saline water at depths 60cm and greater near the adjacent tidal creek. Nonetheless, 18O-enriched stem water and low d-excess values suggested that Pterocarpus officinalis relies primarily on water accessed from unsaturated soil mounds that surround the tree and that are subject to evaporation, as opposed to groundwater at depth. This observation provides further insight to the adaptation mechanisms of Pterocarpus officinalis to survive in flooded ecosystems. In summary, our work demonstrates that for preventing saltwater intrusion, the amount of rainfall and freshwater inflow is more important than the sea level or the existence of an overland hydrological connection to the ocean. 2014 Elsevier Ltd.

published proceedings


author list (cited authors)

  • Colon-Rivera, R. J., Feagin, R. A., West, J. B., Lopez, N. B., & Benitez-Joubert, R. J.

citation count

  • 13

complete list of authors

  • Colon-Rivera, Ricardo J||Feagin, Rusty A||West, Jason B||Lopez, Natalia B||Benitez-Joubert, Rafael J

publication date

  • January 1, 2014 11:11 AM