Restoring Habitats

Restoring Habitats

Early efforts to restore the San Francisco Estuary, before the federal Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act changed management priorities in the 1970s, focused on preserving marshes for waterfowl hunting, protecting river reaches for fishing, and growing trout and salmon in hatcheries. By that time, the estuarine ecosystem had been so severely altered by draining, diking, damming, farming, urbanization, species invasions and water supply projects that there was little left to restore. Restoration to some pristine former state was soon deemed an impossibility. Nevertheless, new mandates forced planners to consider restoring a variety of habitats used by endangered fish, birds and wildlife, to manage dam releases to provide flows and cold water to migrating species, and to reduce pollution and runoff into waterways and critical habitats. Once it became a legal obligation to restore wetlands as mitigation for destroying them, a new frontier of restoration science, design and engineering opened up around the Bay and Delta. 

After piecemeal efforts to restore postage stamp wetlands or waterway reaches in isolation, or with a single species as a focus, a new understanding grew of the need to consider whole landscapes in restoration, backed up by a slew of new Bay and Delta science and research into historic habitats. These larger tracts should, scientists said, include more diverse and connected habitats, and support both endangered and resilient native species. Resource agencies led the charge for a while, encouraged by activists and NGOs, and amplified eventually by regional initiatives like the Delta Stewardship Council and the SF Bay Restoration Authority, as well as the California Coastal Conservancy. Decades of experimentation with various aspects of restoration ensued, ranging from adding gravel to creeks (to help salmon build redds) to allowing farm fields to flood (to provide nursery grounds for juvenile fish) to breaching dikes to restore tides to Delta islands and baylands. Recent projects try to achieve “multiple-benefits” for both species and humans, and also emphasize working with natural processes rather than trying to control them. Read the 17 stories in our Special Restoration Almanac to get the flavor of recent restoration work.

Editor’s Picks

  • Fixing a Dysfunctional Marsh on Sonoma Creek
    Fixing a Dysfunctional Marsh on Sonoma Creek

    Restoration projects, like species, evolve. The Sonoma Creek Enhancement Project, originally about mosquito control, has shown itself to be a boon to special-status tidal marsh wildlife as well. More than a decade of adaptive management actions made that happen.  The existing marsh, formed rapidly beginning in the 1960s by deposited sediment, lacked the dendritic channels […]

  • Makeover for Delta Weed Patch & Salt Trap?
    Makeover for Delta Weed Patch & Salt Trap?

    What began as a project to convert a submerged Delta island into habitat for endangered native fish has morphed into a multi-benefit package with additional payoffs for water quality and recreation. The collaborative design process for the Franks Tract Futures project brought initially skeptical local stakeholders on board and is being hailed as a model […]

  • Forty Miles of Creek, Six Adaptation Projects
    Forty Miles of Creek, Six Adaptation Projects

    In 2017, a perfect storm hit the City of San Jose in Santa Clara County. Coyote Creek, which winds through the heart of the city, overtopped its banks, flooding businesses and hundreds of homes up to depths of six feet. Thousands of people were evacuated and property damages exceeded $70 million. “If I’ve learned anything in my 25 years here, it’s that you have to give creeks room to move, which also creates more resilience to climate change,” says Valley Water’s Afshin Rouhani…

  • Wildlife and Way of Life in the North Delta?
    Wildlife and Way of Life in the North Delta?

    There may not be a way to give everyone what they want from the Delta. But there are ways to restore ecosystems while preserving local communities. This is true even along State Route 160, which traverses the most populated and most intensively farmed part of the region. The highway follows the Sacramento River into the Delta, twisting and turning around leveed islands between Freeport and Rio Vista. This is the North Delta and it’s a spectacular drive…

  • Greening Dickson’s Heights
    Greening Dickson’s Heights

    Looking east from the levee-top trail, a silvery swath of bay is dotted with low islands. This is low tide at the nearly 1,000-acre Sears Point wetland restoration project on the western side of San Pablo Bay. “Without the mounds, you would just have a big area of open water,” says Julian Meisler with Sonoma Land Trust.

  • Locals Trade Vines for Resilient Rivers
    Locals Trade Vines for Resilient Rivers

    In 2002, when stretches of the Napa River running through Rutherford area vineyards breached levees and flooded yet again, Michael Honig did something remarkable: rather than call the authorities to complain, his neighbors and he banded together to restore their riverbanks. “It had became a kind of competition,” Honig says.

  • The Island That Came in from the Cold
    The Island That Came in from the Cold

    For years, Skaggs Island was a tantalizing blank in the map of San Pablo Bay wetlands restoration. Renee Spenst of Ducks Unlimited says it was “one of those places in a strange limbo.” Two-thirds of it was owned by the US Navy; the rest was privately-owned farmland. Converting any of the 4,400 acres back to tidal wetland was out of the question. “The agencies doing restoration just had to work around these two parcels,” recalls Beth Huning…

Further Selections

  • South Bay Trawls Show Fish Like Restored Shores
    South Bay Trawls Show Fish Like Restored Shores

    Twelve years ago, scientists at UC Davis began a survey of the southern end of San Francisco Bay — the Lower South Bay — to see how fish responded to the South Bay Salt Ponds Restoration Project. They discovered an unexpectedly diverse and robust aquatic community and a previously unknown spawning ground for the longfin […]

  • York Creek Uncorked
    York Creek Uncorked

    Over the summer, while most of the Bay Area was figuring out how to navigate the COVID-induced shelter-in-place orders, 1,933 heavy truckloads laden with 22,000 yards of material wound their way away from Napa County’s York Creek, and were dumped into two nearby landfills. Extracting these spoils was the last step in the York Creek […]

  • Highway 37: The Road to Restoration
    Highway 37: The Road to Restoration

    From head-on collisions in the 1980s to crippling congestion now, Highway 37 is a familiar headache for highway engineers. Fearing that engineers might not take full account of the vast marsh restorations underway in the area, the Sonoma Land Trust, the Coastal Conservancy, and others joined in a State Route 37-Baylands Group. In 2017, the group laid down markers: Whatever is done with the east-west highway must also improve the passage of tides and stormwaters north and south, not further impede those flows.

  • Opening the Mouth of Walnut Creek
    Opening the Mouth of Walnut Creek

    Paul Detjens is driving us from his Martinez office to a restoration site near the mouth of Walnut Creek on Suisun Bay, a project he spearheads as an engineer for the Contra Costa County Flood Control District. These lower reaches of the creek — straightened, widened, and leveed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers […]

  • Clout and Cool Science Push Land-River Connection
    Clout and Cool Science Push Land-River Connection

    Statewide, 13,000 miles of levees disconnect our rivers from their floodplains, which once served as nurseries for young salmon migrating to the ocean. California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot wants to help restore this connection: “It’s a win-win-win―it’s a way we can reconnect water with land, create habitat, and provide flood protection.”

  • Super-Shore: A Multi-Habitat Experiment at Giant Marsh
    Super-Shore: A Multi-Habitat Experiment at Giant Marsh

    Interview anyone of any stripe about the Giant Marsh living shorelines project and the same two words will be in every other sentence: high tide. Each construction step of this California Coastal Conservancy-led effort to build new native oyster reefs interspersed with eelgrass off the Contra Costa County shore must consider the timing of tides. […]

  • Big Restoration Experiment for the Delta’s Dutch Slough
    Big Restoration Experiment for the Delta’s Dutch Slough

    Development agreements were already in place for three parcels of land around Dutch Slough when John Cain first took a hike in this West Delta area in the spring of 1999. “It was clear as day to me that removing the levee would be a great way to restore freshwater wetlands at the mouth of Marsh Creek,” says Cain. Almost two decades later, earthmoving equipment is now preparing 1,178 acres for conversion to marsh habitat.

  • Flood Plan Boosts Floodplain
    Flood Plan Boosts Floodplain

    The 2017 update to the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, to be released later this summer, radically revises the flood control strategies that have prevailed for more than a century. The plan recognizes the connections between the flood system, the water system and the ecosystem, and relies less on levees and more on floodplain restoration […]

  • Scaled-Down Plans to “Fix and Restore”
    Scaled-Down Plans to “Fix and Restore”

    Surprising many observers, Governor Jerry Brown announced late in April that the Bay Delta Conservation Program, which had embraced the new water conveyance popularly known as the Twin Tunnels and a broad program for restoring the complex and heavily impacted Delta environment, was being split into two new entities: Cal WaterFix and Cal EcoRestore. On the restoration side, he announced a more modest goal of 30,000 acres, down from the original 100,000.

  • Alameda Work Trickles On
    Alameda Work Trickles On

    Along Alameda Creek, which drains a 640-square-mile watershed, humans have built dams, buried creeks, and reshaped channels. “The watershed is huge and complex, and all these changes, compounded over time, have left us with a long and arduous path to getting it to function more naturally again,” says Carol Mahoney, a planner for Zone 7 Water Agency.

  • Editor’s Pick Restoration Stories 1993-2013
    Editor’s Pick Restoration Stories 1993-2013

    Walk back through time with this sampling of early stories from Estuary’s first two decades of publication. Many stories of the day focused on rescuing creeks and rivers from culverts and rip rap, restoring diked or farmed wetlands, and experimenting with techniques to bring native species back to altered landscapes.

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