Ecosystem restoration

DWR Delta Decker Island sliderboxRestoring ecosystems can have multiple benefits, such as recovering endangered and threatened species, increasing water supply reliability, and adapting to climate change

Toolbox Main Page IconIn recent decades, planning and conservation efforts to preserve and recover endangered species have often recognized that habitat loss, fragmentation, and/or degradation are among the stressors driving declines of native species populations, and restoring ecosystems and habitat is often among the actions identified as necessary for their recovery.  In California, ecosystem restoration has become especially integral to addressing flood management, water quality, and water supply concerns.

Ecosystem restoration seeks to improve the conditions of modified landscapes and the plants and wildlife that depend on them to provide for their sustainability now and into the future.  Since few, if any, of California’s ecosystems can be restored to their pre-development condition, restoration efforts generally focus on the important elements of ecosystem structure and function, such as mimicking the natural flows in streams and rivers, controlling invasive species, tidal marshremoving barriers to fish migration, recovering wetland and floodplain habitats, and reducing or eliminating the discharge of waste and toxic contaminants into water bodies.

Successful restoration of aquatic, riparian, and floodplain species usually requires at least partial restoration of the physical processes that are driven by water, such as seasonal floodplain inundation, sediment deposition, and more natural streamflow patterns.

Many important ecosystem restoration efforts are underway by a variety of state and regional agencies, such as the Natural Resources Agency’s Eco Restore program, the Department of Water Resources, the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan, and the Central Valley Joint Venture.  In addition, several non-governmental organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, are also actively working to restore habitats and landscapes.


With numerous state and federal regulations driving most ecosystem restoration efforts, restoration projects are generally aimed at recovering endangered and threatened species and their habitats.  Successful restoration projects that help increase the abundance of endangered species can help increase water supply reliability by decreasing the amount of species conflicts that often lead to disruption of water supplies.

DWR Delta birds & patterns #7Managing and restoring forest ecosystems can affect both water quality and quantity by reducing erosion and removing pollutants, and has the potential to yield water supply benefits as well.  (Click here more on Forest Management.)

Water supply and flood management projects that include ecosystem restoration benefits are likely to be more sustainable than those that are not, as projects that use natural processes to distribute water and sediment are easier to maintain and less vulnerable to disruption.  In addition, multi-benefit projects can bring in additional sources of funding for the project, as well as being easier to earn public support.

Ecosystem restoration can also play a role in climate change mitigation and adaptation.  Riparian forests and wetland environments have the potential to sequester carbon and serve as carbon sinks to offset carbon emissions.   Floodplain restoration can help the state prepare the frequent and larger floods predicted as a result of climate change.


In recent years, a new direction in protecting and restoring ecosystems is to develop markets for the ecosystem services that rivers and floodplains provide – benefits such as water purification, groundwater recharge, hydropower generation, carbon sequestration, fish and wildlife, and recreation.

Numerous pilot projects are underway to identify management practices, develop economic valuations, and establish mechanisms for beneficiaries to pay for the services received.  While difficult to do, estimating the value of ecosystem services is important for resource managers who often only view ecosystem protection only in terms of costs and not benefits.


Ecosystem restoration and flood management projects often occupy the same place on the landscape and Yolo Bypass Feb 2013 #25depend on the same physical processes as water and sediment distribution, and as such, often go hand in hand.

Many ecosystem restoration projects can also support more sustainable flood management.  The use of setback levees and bypass channels can provide flood protection while also allowing more frequent inundation of floodplains, which can serve as an important fish rearing habitat.  Ecosystem restoration can improve flood protection by reducing levee erosion, deflecting dangerous flows, strengthening levee surfaces, and increasing floodwater conveyance capacity.

However, ecosystem restoration and traditional flood management practices often have conflicting objectives.  Ecosystem Restoration CoverMost of the potential ecosystem restoration opportunities require incorporation of habitat into the flood protection system, but currently consensus is lacking on how to design such a system.

Click here to download this resource management strategy from the California Water Plan.





Some ecosystem efforts underway in California …

  • California Eco Restore: California EcoRestore is an initiative to help coordinate and advance at least 30,000 acres of critical habitat restoration in the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta over the next four years.
  • Ecosystem Restoration Program: The Ecosystem Restoration Program (ERP) is a multi-agency effort aimed at improving and increasing aquatic and terrestrial habitats and ecological function in the Delta and its tributaries. The program’s area of focus includes the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Suisun Bay, the Sacramento River below Shasta Dam, the San Joaquin River below the confluence with the Merced River, and their major tributary watersheds directly connected to the Bay-Delta system below major dams and reservoirs.
  • Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Project: The Baylands and Climate Change: What We Can Do is an update to the 1999 Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals, which for the first time set comprehensive restoration goals for the San Francisco Bay estuary. Produced by a collaborative of 21 management agencies working with a multi-disciplinary team of over 100 scientists, it synthesizes the latest science—particularly advances in the understanding of climate change and sediment supply—and incorporates projected changes through 2100 to generate new recommendations for achieving healthy baylands ecosystems.
  • Central Valley Joint Venture: The Central Valley Joint Venture (CVJV) is a self-directed coalition consisting of 21 State and Federal agencies, private conservation organizations and one corporation. This partnership directs their efforts toward the common goal of providing for the habitat needs of migrating and resident birds in the Central Valley of California.
  • Central Valley Project Improvement Act: The Central Valley Project Improvement Act, mandates changes in management of the Central Valley Project, particularly for the protection, restoration, and enhancement of fish and wildlife.
  • Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program: The Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program is a coordinated, integrated, collaborative program to restore the health of California’s primary watershed through increased investment and needed policy changes.
  • Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project: The Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project is dedicated to acquiring, restoring, and expanding coastal wetlands and watersheds throughout Southern California.

For more information on ecosystem restoration …

  • California Society for Ecological Restoration: The California Society for Ecological Restoration is a non-profit membership-based organization dedicated to facilitating the recovery of damaged California ecosystems through educational and networking activities — conferences, field tours, workshops, and more — which empower our members to address the diverse aspects involved in restoring native California habitats.
  • SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration: A primer available in ten different languages, covering attributes of restored ecosystems, exotic species, monitoring and evaluation, planning and more.

More on habitat restoration from Maven’s Notebook …

  • ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT FORUM, Part 3: Challenges and lessons learned with adaptive management in the Bay-Delta Posted on: April 18, 2019
    Panel of Delta project managers discuss how they apply adaptive management in their projects Adaptive management is defined in the Delta Reform Act as “a framework and flexible decision making process for ongoing knowledge acquisition, monitoring, and evaluation leading to continuous improvements in management planning and implementation of a project to achieve specified objectives”.  Although the Delta Reform Act calls [...]
  • ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT FORUM, Part 1: Panel shares perspectives on and experience with adaptive management Posted on: April 4, 2019
    Panelists discuss what adaptive management is in a practical sense and how it can effectively be implemented in the Delta Adaptive management is widely regarded as an effective approach to environmental management in the face of uncertainty because the approach provides a way to build science and learning into management practices under changing conditions.  However, while adaptive management has been [...]
  • BAY DELTA SCIENCE CONFERENCE: Science-Based Regulatory Permitting for Resilient Tidal Habitat Restorations Posted on: February 21, 2019
    The permitting of tidal restoration projects is most often a costly and time-consuming process, causing substantial delays in implementation while endangered and threatened species remain at risk. Given the accelerating nature of sea level rise, restoration of tidal habitats that are resilient to climate change should be implemented on a large scale and soon to have any chance of contributing [...]
  • BAY DELTA SCIENCE CONFERENCE: Restoration in the Cache Slough Complex: The Yolo Flyway Farms Restoration Project Posted on: February 14, 2019
    The Yolo Flyway Farms Restoration Project involves restoring and enhancing approximately 278 acres of tidal freshwater wetlands at the southern end of the Yolo Bypass within the Cache Slough Complex. The Project seeks to partially restore historical ecological functions in this highly altered regional landscape. The Project will involve minimal excavation of approximately 65,000 cubic yards of soil to provide [...]
  • BAY DELTA SCIENCE CONFERENCE: Franks Tract feasibility study: Applying the guidance of a Delta Renewed Posted on: February 7, 2019
    One of the elements of the 2016 Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy is assessing the feasibility of restoring Franks Tract.  The Franks Tract feasibility study was completed and released in June of 2018 by the Department of Water Resources.  The conceptual design for the project relies on the guidance of the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s A Delta Renewed.  At the 2018 [...]
View all posts on habitat restoration by clicking here.




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