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Researchers restoring California salt marshes from effects of climate change

Posted on October 16, 2023

California’s valuable remaining salt marshes are disappearing. Climate change, with its melting glaciers and warming seas, threatens to drown the remaining coastal marshes out of existence.

But now, a pioneering project is offering these marshes a remarkable new chance.

Between the land and the sea, salt marshes are the true guardians of our coastline. They offer many incredible services and benefits: they filter runoff and pollutants from water, prevent coastal erosion, stabilize the soil, shelter thousands of species and protect cities and towns from flooding during storm surges. They also provide what’s known as blue carbon as they capture and sequester atmospheric carbon.

More than 90% of California’s coastal marshes disappeared within the past century. Near Monterey Bay within the Elkhorn Slough Reserve, a restoration project is now underway that may show the world how to protect and make salt marshes more resilient to the rising seas.

Decades ago, farming and other human activities badly damaged Hester Marsh, causing it to sink. The project seeks to undo the damage by elevating it and bumping it back into a self-sustaining system that will benefit coastal communities without any human intervention.

CBS News Bay Area traveled to Hester Marsh and met up with two scientists who work for the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They are critical members of the team behind the project.

Scientist Monique Fountain is the director of the Tidal Wetland Program at Elkhorn Slough. Evolutionary biologist Dr. Kerstin Wasson runs the Wasson Research Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“What we’ve done here at Hester Marsh is build tomorrow’s marsh,” exclaimed Wasson.

“This marsh will survive much longer than most of the rest of the marshes in our system,” proclaimed Fountain.

They told CBS News Bay Area that the remaining marshes at Elkhorn Slough are low and that with rising sea levels, they will drown. They want to try to ensure they don’t lose them, and that’s why the Hester Marsh Restoration Project exists.

“We’ve built it up so high, at the line of the king tides and that means it will be resilient for tomorrow and be ready to face quite a bit of sea level rise,” Wasson said.

So far, according to Fountain, the project has moved 460,00 cubic yards of soil.

Most of the dirt comes from nearby hillsides, where it’s scooped up and moved by a fleet of trucks that caravan to the restoration sites where the dirt is dumped. Tractors then take the dirt and spread it, building up the marsh.

Fountain noted how the project has turned into a living laboratory.

“When the soil was moved in, we can learn so much about how marshes are developing,” explained Fountain.

The project also involves revegetating the higher plain, with thousands of plants that grow in salt marshes, including pickleweed.

“There’s a ton of life that lives in these little pickleweed plants,” said UC Santa Cruz student Zeanna Graves, on hand as part of a research team tracking the newly-planted vegetation.

The hope is that these plants will establish roots, stabilize the soil, filter water, provide shelter, and even sequester carbon in the restored Hester Marsh.

“I do like working to try and figure it out,” said Graves, when asked what motivates her.

“This is what I’m interested in and passionate about,” replied university researcher Wesley Moore. He too is monitoring how the restoration is taking root. It gives these young students some hope at a time when faced with climate change, how it’s easy to become overwhelmed and pessimistic.

“Even if it’s something small, I can do something to better not only this area but the world,” added Moore.

More than 60 scientists from all different disciplines including hydrologists, biologists, and geologists were involved. In addition, 15 different agencies that have jurisdiction over Elkhorn Slough brought their perspectives and expertise, including federal, state, regional and local. They all helped guide the project based on the best available science.

The restoration is expected to be completed by October 2024.


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