Restoration of urban salt marshes: Lessons from southern California

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Extensive restoration efforts in southern California coastal wetlands highlight several challenges for urban salt marsh restoration, including: habitat isolation and fragmentation, impacts from exotic species, the loss of transitional upland habitats, and other alterations to hydrologic and sediment dynamics. Habitat isolation impairs colonization by dispersal-limited plants, so planting becomes essential to achieve diverse salt marshes. Low species richness slows the development of salt marsh functions (e.g., biomass and nitrogen accumulation) in southern California. A variety of exotic species have invaded the upper reaches of salt marshes in southern California, most commonly in marshes with hydrological modifications. The replacement of gradual slopes between wetlands and uplands by sharp transitions abutting urban development limits our ability to restore rare plant and animal populations. Where hydrologic connections are impaired by roads and other structures, the natural migration of channels is constrained, and sediment dynamics often lead to lagoon mouth closure.

A case study from Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve (hereafter, Tijuana Estuary) further illustrates a specific lesson for urban salt marsh restoration concerning watershed issues and sediment dynamics. In the south arm of Tijuana Estuary, watershed urbanization, along with local climate, topography, and soils, has resulted in extreme rates of sediment accumulation. Sedimentation rates in a salt marsh in the south arm of the estuary ranged from 10 to 30 cm over a single winter (1994–95), substantially greater than historic sedimentation rates in the estuary or rates from other coastal wetlands with storm sedimentation. Sediment buried salt marsh vegetation in place and is converting intertidal salt marsh to uplands. These impacts illustrate the need to consider watershed issues and sediment control in managing and restoring urban salt marshes.

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