We have now entered an era of large-scale attempts to restore ecological functions and biological communities in impaired ecosystems. Our knowledge base of complex ecosystems and interrelated functions is limited, so the outcomes of specific restoration actions are highly uncertain. One approach for exploring that uncertainty and anticipating the range of possible restoration outcomes is comparative study of existing habitats similar to future habitats slated for construction. Here we compare two examples of one habitat type targeted for restoration in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. We compare one critical ecological function provided by these shallow tidal habitats - production and distribution of phytoplankton biomass as the food supply to pelagic consumers. We measured spatial and short-term temporal variability of phytoplankton biomass and growth rate and quantified the hydrodynamic and biological processes governing that variability. Results show that the production and distribution of phytoplankton biomass can be highly variable within and between nearby habitats of the same type, due to variations in phytoplankton sources, sinks, and transport. Therefore, superficially similar, geographically proximate habitats can function very differently, and that functional variability introduces large uncertainties into the restoration process. Comparative study of existing habitats is one way ecosystem science can elucidate and potentially minimize restoration uncertainties, by identifying processes shaping habitat functionality, including those that can be controlled in the restoration design.
Additional publication details
Functional variability of habitats within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: Restoration implications