Paradise Threatened: Land Use and Erosion on St. John, US Virgin Islands

Environ Manage. 1997 Nov;21(6):851-63. doi: 10.1007/s002679900072.


/ Rapid development and the concomitant increases in erosion and sedimentation are believed to threaten the reefs and other marine resources that are a primary attraction of St. John and Virgin Islands National Park. Average annual sediment yields from undeveloped areas were estimated from a sediment pond and a mangrove swamp as less than 20 and less than 40 t/km2/yr, respectively. Geomorphic evidence indicates that plantation agriculture during the 18th and 19th centuries did not cause severe erosion. Since about 1950 there has been rapid growth in roads and development due to increasing tourism and second-home development. Our field investigations identified the approximately 50 km of unpaved roads as the primary source of anthropogenic sediment. Field measurements of the road network in two catchments led to the development of a vector-based GIS model to predict road surface erosion and sediment delivery. We estimate that road erosion has caused at least a fourfold increase in island-wide sediment yields and that current sedimentation rates are unprecedented. Paving the dirt roads and implementing standard sediment control practices can greatly reduce current sediment yields and possible adverse effects on the marine ecosystems surrounding St. John.KEY WORDS: Erosion; Sediment yield; Roads; Dry tropics; Development