This study reconstructs the historical landscape of the Petaluma River watershed and documents the major landscape changes that have taken place within the watershed over the past two centuries. Prior to Spanish and American settlement of the region, the Petaluma River watershed supported a dynamic and interconnected network of streams, riparian forests, freshwater wetlands, and tidal marshes. These habitats were utilized by a wide range of plant and animal species, including a number of species that are today listed as threatened or endangered such as Ridgway’s Rail, Black Rail, salt marsh harvest mouse, California red-legged frog, Central California Coast steelhead, and soft bird’s beak (CNDDB 2012, SRCD 2015). Agricultural and urban development beginning in the mid-1800s has significantly altered the landscape, degrading habitat for fish and wildlife and contributing to contemporary management challenges such as flooding, pollutant loading, erosion, and sedimentation. While many natural areas and remnant wetlands still exist throughout the watershed—most notably the Petaluma Marsh—their ecological function is in many cases seriously impaired and their long-term fate jeopardized by climate change and other stressors. Multi-benefit wetland restoration strategies, guided by a thorough understanding of landscape history, can simultaneously address a range of chronic management issues while improving the ecological health of the watershed, making it a better place to live for both people and wildlife.
This study synthesizes a diverse array of data to examine the ecological patterns, ecosystem functions, and hydrology that characterized a central portion of the Laguna de Santa Rosa during the mid-19th century, and to analyze landscape changes over the past 150 years. The primary purpose of this study was to help guide restoration actions and other measures aimed at reducing nutrient loads within this portion of the Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed.
Lower Walnut Creek (Contra Costa County, CA) and its surrounding landscape have undergone considerable land reclamation and development since the mid-nineteenth century. In 1965, the lower 22 miles of Walnut Creek and the lower reaches of major tributaries were converted to flood control channels to protect the surrounding developed land. In the recent past, sediment was periodically removed from the lower Walnut Creek Flood Control Channel to provide flow capacity and necessary flood protection. Due to the wildlife impacts and costs associated with this practice, the Contra Costa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District (District) is now seeking a new channel management approach that works with natural processes and benefits people and wildlife in a cost-effective manner. Flood Control 2.0 project scientists and a Regional Science Advisory Team (RSAT) worked with the District to develop a long-term management Vision for lower Walnut Creek that could result in a multi-benefit landscape that restores lost habitat and is resilient under a changing climate.
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.
As sea level rise accelerates, our shores will be increasingly vulnerable to erosion. Particular concern centers around the potential loss of San Francisco Bay’s much-valued tidal marshes, which provide natural flood protection to our shorelines, habitat for native wildlife, and many other ecosystem services. Addressing this concern, this study is the first systematic analysis of the rates of marsh retreat and expansion over time for San Pablo Bay, located in the northern part of San Francisco Bay.
• Over the past two decades, more of the marshes in San Pablo Bay have expanded (35% by length) than retreated (6%).
• Some areas have been expanding for over 150 years.
• Some marsh edges that appear to be retreating are in fact expanding rapidly at rates of up to 8 m/yr.
• Marsh edge change may be a useful indicator of resilience, identifying favorable sites for marsh persistence.
• These data can provide a foundation for understanding drivers of marsh edge expansion and retreat such as wind direction, wave energy, watershed sediment supply, and mudflat shape.
• This understanding of system dynamics will help inform management decisions about marsh restoration and protection.
• This study provides a baseline and method for tracking marsh edge response to current and future conditions, particularly anticipated changes in sea level, wave energy, and sediment supply.
Recommended next steps:
• This pilot study for San Pablo Bay marshes should be extended to other marshes in San Francisco Bay.
• These initial marsh expansion and retreat findings should be further analyzed and interpreted to improve our understanding of system drivers and identify management responses.
• A program for repeated assessment should be developed to identify and track changes in shoreline position, a leading indicator of the likelihood marsh survival.