Joshua N. Collins, Ph.D.
Large amounts of public funds and human resources are being invested in
the protection, creation, restoration, and enhancement of wetlands in
the Region. Both the number and size of wetland projects are increasing
each year, and the overall ecological and economic importance of wetlands
is therefore also increasing.
A monitoring program is needed to evaluate wetland policies, programs,
and projects in the Region. Wetlands need to be compared to one another
and over time, relative to ambient conditions, to assess the status and
trends of the wetland ecosystem, measure the progress of wetland projects,
measure the effects of the projects on the larger ecosystem, troubleshoot
problems, assess the efficacy of management decisions, and otherwise account
for the public investment in wetlands.
But these needs cannot be met at this time because the ambient conditions
of wetlands are not being monitored, projects are monitored in disparate
ways, there is little assurance of data quality, and monitoring results
are not readily available.
Through this program, SFEI helps the regional client community of wetland
interests to reach consensus about the highest priority needs for scientific
information about wetlands, to define SFEI’s roles in meeting those
information needs, and SFEI plays the roles to the satisfaction of the
Coordinate the design and implementation of a regional program to monitor
the status and trends of the wetland ecosystem of the San Francisco Estuary.
- Contribute to the scientific basis for wetland conservation, to
the assessment of the success (or failure) of wetland restoration projects,
and to the assessment of the ecological effects of wetland management
- Create and maintain a regional public access information system
about wetlands in the region.
- Enhance coordination of wetland research within the region between
and among state and federal agencies and academia.
- Enhance coordination of monitoring and research that regards wetlands
as transitional landscapes between terrestrial and aquatic systems.
Between 1995 and 1999, the priority need was to help determine how much
of what kinds of wetlands are needed where, and why. SFEI played a central
role in defining the question, advancing the process of getting answers,
and reporting the answers to the public. The primary products were the
Bay Area Wetlands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Report and the Baylands Ecosystem
Species and Community Profiles. More important has been the surge in ecological
restoration and the invigorated culture of scientific collaboration and
integration that have been nurtured by the Goals Project.
Since 1999, the highest priority need has shifted from getting consensus
about restoration goals to tracking the progress of restoration projects,
and assessing their ecosystem effects. To meet this need, SFEI has been
coordinating scientific efforts among many agencies and science institutes
to design and implement a Wetland Regional Monitoring Program (WRMP).
The effort is intensive, iterative, open-ended, and productive. It continues
to yield significant original data and findings on many major aspects
of the wetlands ecosystem. The WRMP is poised to be adopted by the new
multi-agency SF Bay Wetland Recovery Program as its monitoring element.
The Wetland Science Program has given rise to three important regional
science initiatives that are centered at SFEI. The EcoAtlas Information
System, the Historical Ecology Project, and the Watershed Program are
growing ventures of regional scientific importance and celebrity that
have grown from the Wetlands Science Program.
Wetlands have always been viewed as transitional landscapes between
aquatic and terrestrial environments. The Wetlands Science Program has
been strategically planned for collaboration with aquatic and terrestrial
programs and projects, including especially SFEI’s Regional Monitoring
Program for Trace Substances and Watersheds Program.
In 1995, we produced the first Regional Wetlands Monitoring Plan for the
San Francisco Bay Area. This was a landmark document that summarized existing
conceptual models of wetland form and function, outlined a system of wetland
classification, a process to establish regional wetland habitat goals,
a process to monitor wetland project performance relative to ambient conditions,
and an outline for multi-agency and multi-discipline governance of the
program. Most of these recommendations have since been implemented or
are being implemented at this time. The most significant finding of this
plan was that successful conservation of wetland resources depended upon
quantitative habitat goals shared by all the wetland agencies.
- Between 1995 and 1998, the Wetland Science Program produced the
first comprehensive map of historical habitats for the region. This initiated
the Historical Ecology Project and gave rise to similar efforts in other
regions. The historical array of wetlands and riparian habitats was much
different than had been assumed by the regional community of environmental
scientists and managers. Our findings that most local streams did not
naturally reach the Bay, that many of their tributaries did not reach
the valley bottoms, that riparian zones were narrow and discontinuous,
that complexes of vernal pools and wet coastal meadows with large stands
of willows dominated the large valleys and bay-upland ecotone, that runoff
from local watersheds created ecologically significant estuarine gradients,
and that tidal marshes provided much of the foraging and resting habitats
of migratory waterfowl have caused major paradigm shifts in the expectations
for ecological restoration.
- Our continuing study of historical wetlands and related habitats
is finding that the historical habitat array that figures prominently
in restoration goals was not natural but rather the result of ongoing
land management by indigenous peoples. This has major implications for
how people might be involved in the management of restoration projects
in the future.
- In 1996, the Wetland Science Program produced the first assessment
of the potential impacts of large-scale tidal marsh restoration on existing
ecological resources of the bayshore. Though controversial at the time,
our main finding that significant negative impacts could be mitigated
by matching restoration endpoints to specific site conditions, using dredged
sediment to nurture evolution of intertidal habitats, recognizing the
different ecological services of successional seres, using projects as
opportunities to test different restoration techniques, and expanding
the schedule of restoration to prevent over-taxing the sediment supply
are now key aspects for restoration planning.
- Also in 1996, the Wetland Science Program produced the first regional
Geographic Information System (GIS) for estuarine wetlands and related
habitats. The GIS, named the Bay Area EcoAtlas, enabled us to quantitatively
compare past and present wetland habitat arrays. It was also used to create
the first GIS-based ecological and economic cost-benefit analysis for
large-scale conversion of diked baylands to tidal marsh, which showed
that initial tidal elevations of re-use sites and their distance from
offloading facilities controlled the economic feasibility. The finding
was used by the LTMS in its initial feasibility analyses.
- In 1997 and 1998, we found that the habitat boundaries as shown
in the EcoAtlas were more precise, more accurate, and better documented
that for any other map of historical habitats in the region. In part because
of this finding, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the
County of Marin, and the State Lands Commission adopted the historical
baylands map for baylands planning and management.
- In 1999 we produced the baylands Ecosystem Goals Report that has
become the foundation for restoration projects large and small throughout
the region. Many of the recommendations made in the original 1995 Regional
Wetlands Monitoring Plan are repeated in this “Goal Report.”
The process of setting the Goals was invented by us and we coordinated
the scientific support. As we predicted and intended, the Goals Report
is the single most important unifying element in the regional effort to
restore the wetland ecosystem.
- Also in 1999, we produced a detailed map of the historical and
existing geographic extent of freshwater influences on the ecology of
the intertidal zone and shallow subtidal habitats of the South Bay. The
major findings that current non-saline discharges from POTWs and local
creeks about match the historical discharges from local creek and springs,
and that these kinds of discharges historically produced natural estuarine
gradients in Far south Bay has caused the wetland agencies to begin considering
the potential beneficial uses of the existing discharge as part of the
large scale South Bay restoration program.
- In 1999 and 2000, we participated in field and laboratory studies
of the paleo-ecological nature of tidal marshes along the main estuarine
gradient of San Francisco Bay. Our published finding that saline conditions
have waxed and waned as far upstream as the western Delta since at least
2,500 years before the present challenges the general assumptions that
Holocene estuarine transgression has been uniform and that the saline
conditions induced by land use and water management since the mid a800s
lack precedent in this system.
- In 2000 and 2001, we sponsored and participated in studies of
tidal marsh food webs in this region that suggest separate pathways of
energy processing for the tidal marsh plain (which is linked to terrestrial
food webs), large channels (which are linked to food webs of the tidal
flats and open bays), and small intertidal channels (these seem to support
their own food webs with weak links to the marsh plain and large channels).
These findings are likely to strongly affect future research and monitoring
for wetland project performance and intertidal contamination.
- In 1999 and again in 2001, we planned and participated in a regional
survey of the distribution and abundance of invasive cordgrass (Spartina
spp.) in San Francisco Bay. The latest survey stands as the best regional
picture of the non-native cordgrass invasion. Our findings of multiple
invasion fronts, many forms of the invader, complex variations in percent
cover within patches of the invader, abundant invasion of the tidal reaches
of local creeks, and the extension of the invasion from South Bay to Central
Bay has significantly shaped the emerging plan for non-native cordgrass
- In 2002, we conducted the only definitive field study of the vertical
distribution of non-native Spartina alterniflora and its hybrids along
the South Bay shoreline and adjacent creeks. We found that the vertical
distribution is less than had been assumed by the wetland management agencies.
We also found a strong correlation between the minimum tidal distribution
and the cumulative duration of tidal inundation during the growing season
that provides a basis to predict the likely maximum extent of tidal flat
conversion to cordgrass marshland under saline conditions. These findings
should significantly improve the scientific basis of efforts to control
the cordgrass invasion