Physical Evolution of Restored Breached Levee Salt Marshes in the San Francisco Bay Estuary


Address correspondence to P. B. Williams, e-mail


Since 1972 over 940 ha (2,300 ac) of leveed former salt marsh sites around San Francisco Bay have been restored to tidal action, purposely or through natural processes. The evolution of these sites can inform predictions of rates of marshplain evolution and establishment of tidal channel systems. A review of the history of 15 re-flooded sites ranging in size from 18 to 220 ha (45 to 550 ac) and in age from 2 to 29 years indicates that marshplain vegetation with more than 50% cover was established at nine of the sites within 4 to 20 years. The remaining six sites aged 2 to approximately 20 years continue to be less than 50% vegetated. The evolution of these sites is consistent with the following simple conceptual model of the physical evolution of restored tidal marshes in subsided breached sites. Initially, deposition of estuarine sediment builds up mudflats that allow vegetation establishment once elevations are high enough for vegetation to survive. Sites that are initially lower in the tidal frame take longer to vegetate than those that are initially higher. Three factors appear to retard the time frame for vegetation establishment: limited estuarine suspended sediment supply, erosion of deposited estuarine muds by internally generated wind waves, and restricted tidal exchange. These factors affect evolution more significantly in larger sites. The comparatively short time frame for vegetation colonization and marshplain evolution experienced in earlier, smaller, and/or less subsided breached levee restorations may not necessarily be replicable by simple levee breaching on larger subsided restoration sites now being planned. Our review of the 15 sites also indicates that the formation of tidal channels within the marshes is greatly dependent on whether and how high the site was filled before breaching. Filled sites at high intertidal elevations (above approximately 0.3 m below mean higher high water) can vegetate quickly but after several decades may show little development of tidal channels.