Nestled on the edge of town where tidal ebbs and flows inundate the shore, the Carpinteria Salt Marsh spans over 230 acres of some of the most biologically productive and diverse land remaining in Southern California. It is a place of overlapping boundaries, where habitats such as tidal zone, sandy shore, mudflat, tidal channel and salt marsh collide in “ecotones”—the barriers between different habitats which are often even richer in species diversity. This brimming and watery world provides shelter for teeming nurseries of baby fish and crustaceans, a stopover for thousands of migratory birds flying from South and Central America to northern breeding grounds, and a safe home for hundreds of native plant, insect, bird and animal species, including several that are critically endangered.
The Carpinteria Salt Marsh is a look back in time to when most of the South Coast was uninterrupted coastal estuary and flood plain, filled with millions of noisy waterfowl and fish runs so thick rivers seemed like living beings. The Chumash, the original inhabitants of these landscapes, visited salt marshes for abundant fish and bird harvests, paddling their tomols over the underwater reefs and tidal inlets of estuaries, timing their efforts to the rising and falling tides richest in fish. Like many other cities along the California coast, Carpinteria is mostly built on filled-in marsh, which is one reason downtown will be so effected by climate change-caused sea level rise.
The marsh is also a symbol of a hopeful future, where state and local government and local non-profits work together to preserve and restore wild habitats with priceless natural and cultural riches that benefit us all. The Carpinteria Salt Marsh is a product of decades of long vision and hard work by private landowners, the University of California Reserve System, the City of Carpinteria, the Coastal Conservancy, and the Santa Barbara Land Trust (SBLT), as well as many concerned citizens and scientists.
The marsh is an incredible success story—saved from various potential developments and years of serious degradation by an intensive effort to first protect the land in perpetuity, and then restore the marsh by dredging to re-create tidal channels and removing invasive plants. Thanks to the marsh’s connection to UCSB, it is also a research site for groundbreaking work on ecological restoration, climate change, and endangered species protection.
Salt marshes and other tidal buffers are some of the most diverse landscapes on the planet. The combination of wet and dry land, salt and fresh water, and constant change due to tidal shifts creates a habitat teeming with microscopic food that sustains fish, bird, and mammal populations. Many species of plants exist only in salt or brackish water, where they have evolved specialized techniques over thousands of years to tolerate wildly fluctuating levels of salinity in water due to tides.
For example, pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) is a common marsh plant whose succulent leaves and stems cover acres of the Carpinteria Salt Marsh. Pickleweed can spend weeks at a time submerged in salt water, which is generally toxic to plants. Pickleweed has developed tiny cellular pumps in its membranes which funnel excess salts into the outer edges of its leaves. Once fully salt-saturated, these leaves will die and fall off, thereby removing toxic levels of salt from the plant’s body. Pickleweed’s vigorous success in the salt marsh has proved indispensable to state-endangered Belding’s Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis beldingi), which feeds and nests almost exclusively in pickleweed’s shelter. Both plant and bird are found only in coastal salt marshes.
Salt marshes also provide essential services to landscapes both human-made and wild. They are giant sponges, slowing and holding the rush of water from mountains and rivers which might otherwise cause severe flooding in urban spaces. Salt marshes provide for marine ecosystems as well, filtering and purifying polluted freshwater runoff before it spills into the ocean. And they are buffers against coastal erosion, protecting land from wave action by absorbing tidal force.
The Carpinteria Salt Marsh is especially precious because it is so rare. While California’s coast was lined with a diverse mosaic of coastal estuaries, salt marshes, and river deltas before European settlement, less than 10 percent of those historic wetland habitats remain. Such a dramatic decrease in wetland habitat due to development is reflected in the vanishing runs of steelhead trout in Southern California and salmon in Northern California, and the ensuing decline of commercial fisheries, ocean pollution and species extinction. Protecting what wetland habitat remains is imperative for coastal resilience in the face of a changing climate and mass species extinction.
You can further restore the Carpinteria Salt Marsh. Andrea Adams-Morden runs monthly invasive plant removals in the Carpinteria Salt Marsh, generally on the first Saturday of every month. Check the CVN calendar for more information.