Over the past century and a half, lower Novato Creek and the surrounding tidal wetlands have been heavily modified for flood control and land reclamation purposes. Levees were built in the tidal portion of the mainstem channel beginning in the late 1800s to convey flood flows out to San Pablo Bay more rapidly and to remove surrounding areas from inundation. Following levee construction, the wetlands surrounding the channel were drained and converted to agricultural, residential, and industrial areas. These changes have resulted in a considerable loss of wetland habitat, reduced sediment transport to marshes and the Bay, and an overall decreased resilience of the system to sea level rise.
In addition to tidal wetland modification, land use changes upstream in the Novato Creek watershed have resulted in several challenges for flood control management. Dam construction and increased runoff in the upper watershed have resulted in elevated rates of channel incision, which have increased transport of fine sediment from the upper watershed to lower Novato Creek. Channelization of tributaries and construction of irrigation ditches have likely increased drainage density in the upper watershed, also potentially contributing to increased rates of channel incision and fine sediment production (Collins 1998). Downstream, sediment transport capacity has been reduced by construction of a railroad crossing and loss of tidal prism and channel capacity associated with the diking of the surrounding marsh. As a result of the increased fine sediment supply from the watershed and the loss of sediment transport capacity in lower Novato Creek, sediment aggradation occurs within the channel, which in turn reduces the flood capacity of the channel, necessitating periodic dredging.
Currently, the Marin County Department of Public Works (MCDPW) is coordinating the Novato Watershed Program, which includes Marin County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Novato Sanitary District, and North Marin Water District. Within lower Novato Creek, the Program is seeking to implement a new approach to flood control that includes redirecting sediment for beneficial use, reducing flood channel maintenance costs, restoring wetland habitat, and enhancing resilience to sea level rise. Included as part of this goal is the re-establishment of historical physical processes that existed before major channel modification, which in turn will re-establish historical ecological functions and help to create a tidal landscape that is resilient to increasing sea level.
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Flood Control 2.0 is an ambitious regional effort aimed at helping restore stream and wetland habitats, water quality, and shoreline resilience around San Francisco Bay. The project leverages local resources from several forward-looking flood control agencies to redesign major flood control channels so that they provide both future flood conveyance and ecological benefit under a changing climate. This timely project will develop a set of innovative approaches for bringing environmental benefits and cost-savings to flood protection efforts at the mouths of creeks that drain to San Francisco Bay.
SFEI recently completed an historical ecology study of lower Novato Creek in Marin County. The study was conducted as part of the larger Flood Control 2.0 project and was aimed at illustrating the change in creek and bayland habitat conditions over the past 120 years following the installation of flood control levees.