Rivers provide a variety of ecological services necessary to sustain human communities, and floodplains are integral parts of river ecosystems and critical to many of these services. Over the last century, however, humans have constructed dams and levees that have severed floodplains from riverine ecosystems. California's Central Valley demonstrates this pattern. Loss of periodically inundated floodplains has significantly reduced habitats required to sustain fisheries, migratory birds and other wildlife; diminished natural processes that cycle nutrients, cleanse water, and recharge aquifers; and paradoxically, has actually increased economic damages associated with large floods. I am working on a project to develop a spatially explicit model of potential floodplain restoration sites using a new indicator for quantifying floodplain function that can serve both ecological and public safety goals.
My proposed spatial analysis will utilize a model linking ecology and hydrology to map areas of potential habitat that could be supported under baseline and changing scenarios based on altering peak flows (influenced by climate change) or topography (resulting from potential restoration actions). Using a geographic information system (GIS) to synthesize high resolution spatial and hydrologic data will allow multiple scenarios to be run based on adjustments of flood stage. This analysis of the physical floodplain template can serve as a starting point for building vegetation and fish linkages to flood flows that also pose risks to development and infrastructure. By making these tradeoffs explicit, decisions makers can better evaluate and justify how to invest in ecosystem restoration in the Central Valley.