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

“The first step in a river-restoration program should…be to develop a solid understanding of what the targeted rivers were actually like before the changes that restorationists seek to undo or mitigate.” (Montgomery 2008).



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.

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This research was funded by the California State Coastal Conservancy as part of the Ventura County Historical Ecology Study (Beller et al. 2011). We thank Peter Brand, Coastal Conservancy project manager, for his vision and support of this project. Thanks also to our collaborators: Shawna Dark (California State University Northridge); Eric Stein (Southern California Coastal Water Research Project); Travis Longcore (University of Southern California); Gretchen Coffman (University of San Francisco); Tyler McIntosh (Stanford University), and Ruth Askevold, Alison Whipple, Bronwen Stanford, and Julie Beagle (San Francisco Estuary Institute). Thanks to James Quinn (Plymouth University GeoMapping Unit) for producing the figures and to Glen Leverich (Stillwater Sciences) for advice pertaining to groundwater. We would also like to express our appreciation to the volunteers and staff at the historical societies, libraries, and archives whose data forms the backbone of our research.

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Correspondence to Erin E. Beller.

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Beller, E.E., Downs, P.W., Grossinger, R.M. et al. From past patterns to future potential: using historical ecology to inform river restoration on an intermittent California river. Landscape Ecol 31, 581–600 (2016).

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