The Mgeni Estuary on the wave dominated east coast of South Africa occupies a narrow, bedrock confined, alluvial valley and is partially blocked at the coast by an elongate sandy barrier. Fluvial sediment extends to the barrier and marine deposition is restricted to a small flood tidal delta.
Sequential aerial photography, sediment sampling and topographical surveys reveal a cyclical pattern of sedimentation that is mediated by severe fluvial floods which exceed normal energy thresholds. During severe floods (up to 10x 103 m3 s−1), lateral channel confinement promotes vertical erosion ofbed material. Eroded material is deposited as an ephemeral delta in the sea. After floods the river gradient is restored within a few months through rapid fluvial deposition and formation of a shallow, braided channel. Over an extended period (approximately 70 years) the estuary banks and bars are stabilised by vegetation and mud deposition. Subsequent downcutting in marginal areas transforms the channel to an anastomosing pattern which represents a stable morphology which adjusts to the normal range of hydrodynamic conditions. This cyclical pattern of deposition produces multiple fill sequences in such estuaries under conditions of stable sea level.
The barrier and adjacent coastline prograde temporarily after major floods as the eroded barrier is reformed by wave action, but excess sediment is ultimately eroded as waves adjust the barrier to an equilibrium plan form morphology. Deltaic progradation is prevented by a steep nearshore slope, and rapid sediment dispersal by wave action and shelf currents.
During transgression, estuarine sedimentation patterns are controlled by the balance between sedimentation rates and receiving basin volume. If fluvial sedimentation keeps pace with the volume increase of a basin an estuary may remain shallow and river dominated throughout its evolution and excess fluvial sediments pass through the estuary into the sea. Only if the rate of volume increase of the drowned river valley exceeds the volume of sediment supply are deep water environments formed. Under such conditions an estuary becomes a sediment sink and infills by deltaic progradation and lateral accretion as predicted by evolutionary models for microtidal estuaries. Bedrock valley geometry may exert an important control on this rate of volume increase independently of variations in the rate of relative sea level change.
If estuarine morphology is viewed as a function of the balance of wave, tidal and fluvial processes, the Mgeni Estuary may be defined as a river dominated estuary in which deltaic progradation at the coast is limited by high wave energy. It is broadly representative of other river dominated estuaries along the Natal coast and a conceptual regional depositional model is proposed. Refinement of a globally applicable model will require further comparative studies of river dominated estuaries in this and other settings, but it is proposed that river dominated estuaries represent a distinct type of estuarine morphology.