Landscape Ecology

, Volume 31, Issue 3, pp 581–600

From past patterns to future potential: using historical ecology to inform river restoration on an intermittent California river

  • Erin E. Beller
  • Peter W. Downs
  • Robin M. Grossinger
  • Bruce K. Orr
  • Micha N. Salomon
Research Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10980-015-0264-7

Cite this article as:
Beller, E.E., Downs, P.W., Grossinger, R.M. et al. Landscape Ecol (2016) 31: 581. doi:10.1007/s10980-015-0264-7



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.


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.


Hundreds of cartographic, textual, and visual accounts were integrated into a GIS database of historical river characteristics.


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.


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.


Historical ecology Alluvial rivers Process-based restoration Intermittent flow regime Landscape reconstruction Floodplain and riparian habitats Ecohydrology Resilience 

Funding information

Funder NameGrant NumberFunding Note
California State Coastal Conservancy

    Copyright information

    © Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

    Authors and Affiliations

    • Erin E. Beller
      • 1
    • Peter W. Downs
      • 2
    • Robin M. Grossinger
      • 1
    • Bruce K. Orr
      • 3
    • Micha N. Salomon
      • 1
    1. 1.Resilient Landscapes ProgramSan Francisco Estuary InstituteRichmondUSA
    2. 2.School of Geography, Earth and Environmental SciencesPlymouth UniversityPlymouthUK
    3. 3.Stillwater SciencesBerkeleyUSA

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