Establishing Targets for Regional Coastal Wetland Restoration Planning Using Historical Ecology and Future Scenario Analysis: The Past, Present, Future Approach


Regional approaches to coastal wetland restoration are one of the best ways to ensure that these threatened habitats persist in the face of sea level rise. Regional approaches provide a mechanism for prioritizing restoration actions in areas where future conditions will promote maximum resiliency while still providing for an appropriate composition of plant and animal habitats across the region as a whole. Developing a regional restoration strategy requires understanding historical losses relative to contemporary habitat distributions, predicting future changes due to sea level rise (and other stressors), and evaluating management actions with the potential to offset expected future losses. In this study, we present an approach to assess historical losses and future management options for more than 100 individual wetlands along the Southern California (USA) coast ranging in size from a few tenths of a hectare to over 250 ha. This analysis was conducted to support development of a regional wetland strategy that will guide restoration in Southern California for the next several decades. The approach consisted of reconstructing historical wetland distribution using US Coast and Geodetic Survey T-sheets, mapping current wetlands and classifying them into archetypes that represent different settings and processes, and predicting future distributions based on a hypsometric model of elevation changes under various sea level rise and management scenarios. Historical analysis revealed that two-thirds of the 331 wetlands present in ca. 1850 and 75% of vegetated estuarine habitat area has been lost, with most losses occurring in small to medium size wetlands. Up to 69% of the remaining marshes and flats could be lost with 1.7 m of sea level rise, with an associated increase in subtidal habitat. However, potential future losses could be largely offset, and total area could increase under scenarios of facilitated wetland migration and sediment augmentation. Although the future distribution of wetlands would likely be different from current conditions, sufficient habitat would be provided region-wide. This analysis demonstrates how regional analysis of historic, present, and likely future conditions can support a strategy that could lead to net wetland gain under future sea level rise conditions. However, immediate and decisive action is necessary.

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This work was conducted as part of the Southern California Wetland Recovery Project (SCWRP) aimed at preserving the remaining coastal wetlands in the Southern California region ( Funding for the historical analysis was provided the California State Coastal Conservancy (Agreement 06-061), US Fish and Wildlife Service (Co-op Agreement #80211AJ111), and the California State Wildlife Conservation Board. Dr. John Cloud was instrumental in helping us obtain high-resolution scans of the T-sheets that formed the basis for much of our analysis. We thank Wayne Engstrom, Walter Heady, David Jacobs, and Richard Ambrose for their insightful and constructive comments. We are forever indebted to the talented surveyors and cartographers who produced the T-sheets that have provided valuable insight into historical conditions along the Southern California Bight. We thank Micha Solomon of the San Francisco Estuary Institute for helping in GIS mapping of historical wetlands. Funding for the sea level rise analysis was provided by grants from the US Fish and Wildlife Service Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) Program, the California State Coastal Conservancy, and the USC Sea Grant Trainee Program. The SCWRP effort is an interagency consortium involving federal, state, and local agencies, ranging, for example, from the US Army Corps of Engineers, the CA Coastal Conservancy, and the CA State Water Resources Board down to individual site management like the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. Therefore, we would like to express our gratitude toward all who contributed to this project, especially the SCWRP’s Science Advisory Panel for their input and guidance.

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Correspondence to Eric D. Stein.

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Wetland of other archetypes may also intermittently close to the tides. However the Intermediate class is characterized by medium size estuaries with mouths that routinely close

Communicated by Stijn Temmerman

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Stein, E.D., Doughty, C.L., Lowe, J. et al. Establishing Targets for Regional Coastal Wetland Restoration Planning Using Historical Ecology and Future Scenario Analysis: The Past, Present, Future Approach. Estuaries and Coasts (2020).

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  • Regional wetland planning
  • Sea level rise
  • Restoration
  • Historical ecology
  • Archetypes