Water in the wetlands


Water.  Everyone is talking about it here in California.  We’re into year 4 of the historic drought and every drop counts.

Here at Bolsa Chica water is the essence of the wetlands.  We get water from both the East Garden Grove-Wintersburg Flood Control Channel as well as from the Pacific Ocean.

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The East Garden Grove-Wintersburg Flood Control Channel was built in the 1950’s and starts 12 miles inland in the cities of Anaheim and Garden Grove.  When it rains, urban runoff consisting of water, debris, and pollution flows down the channel from all cities along the route and ends up at the tide gates.  Trash ends up on the banks of the wetlands and flows into the Pacific Ocean when the tides go out.  One question we receive a lot is why don’t we go down and clean it up.  Sometimes we are able to go down and clean it up, but during the breeding season of the state-endangered Belding’s Savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis beldingi) we do not.  These birds nest in the pickleweed (Salticornia spp.) and we will not disturb them.

Photo by Marinka Horack

In 2006, the tidal inlet was restored allowing saltwater from the Pacific Ocean to return to the wetlands in more than 100 years.  With the return of the salt water and the tides, the wetlands started thriving.  Evidence of the success of the restoration is the three broods of the endangered Ridgway’s Rail (formerly Light-footed Clapper Rail) (Rallus obsoletus levipes) in 2015.  The rails started breeding at Bolsa Chica last year after decades of not breeding so it was a great cause of celebration.  

With the high and low tides, the wetlands experience tidal influence and change depending on the time of day.  During high tide, the water flushes the salt marsh plant communities with water brings sea life into the bays.  Wetlands are often times nurseries for small fish, and sometimes bigger animals like sea lions or even dolphins swim in during high tides.  During low tides, the water flows out of the bays exposing the mud.  The shorebirds of many species flock to the mudflats to feast on the mud-dwelling creatures like mollusks, worms, and crustaceans.  Different species of birds have different lengths of bill to reach different types of food.

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sea lion visiting from the Ocean
mudflats at sunset

But what about the Mesas?  During our habitat restoration, we irrigate the newly planted native plants with water to help them become established.  Once the plants have matured and can survive on their own, the plants rely on the morning coastal fog (marine layer) and seasonal rains.  The native plants we plant on the Mesa do not need a lot of water to survive and are considered drought tolerant.  With this historic drought, we are going to carefully monitor the plants for signs of stress and adjust our planting schedule accordingly.


The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve would not be the same without water.  Let’s do our part to keep it clean from pollution.


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