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Context Effective river restoration requires understanding a system’s potential to support desired functions. This can be challenging to discern in the modern landscape, where natural complexity and heterogeneity are often heavily suppressed or modified. Historical analysis is therefore a valuable tool to provide the long-term perspective on riverine patterns, processes, and ecosystem change needed to set appropriate environmental management goals and strategies.
Objective In this study, we reconstructed historical (early 1800s) riparian conditions, river corridor extent, and dry-season flow on the lower Santa Clara River in southern California, with the goal of using this enhanced understanding to inform restoration and management activities.
Method Hundreds of cartographic, textual, and visual accounts were integrated into a GIS database of historical river characteristics.
Results We found that the river was characterized by an extremely broad river corridor and a diverse mosaic of riparian communities that varied by reach, from extensive ([100 ha) willow-cottonwood forests to xeric scrublands. Reach-scale ecological heterogeneity was linked to local variations in dry-season water availability, which was in turn underpinned by regional geophysical controls on groundwater and surface flow.
Conclusions Although human actions have greatly impacted the river’s extent, baseflow hydrology, and riparian habitats, many ecological attributes persist in more limited form, in large part facilitated by these fundamental hydrogeological controls. By drawing on a heretofore untapped dataset of spatially explicit and long-term environmental data, these findings improve our understanding of the river’s historical and current conditions and allow the derivation of reach-differentiated restoration and management opportunities that take advantage of local potential.