The Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve.
The Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve is still recovering from habitat loss and food-web changes that occurred after the 2017 Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flows. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve is still recovering from habitat loss and food-web changes that occurred after the 2017 Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flows.

That assessment was offered Sunday during a public forum in Santa Barbara.

Large woody debris, sediment and other material washed into the wetland from the fire-scarred foothills above Carpinteria during a powerful storm on Jan. 9, 2018. Materials poured from Santa Monica and Franklin creeks into the marsh.

The Thomas Fire burned more than 281,00 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and the inferno was followed three weeks later by the flash flooding and debris flows.

Some of the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve channels have made strides toward recovery post-debris flows, but “many are still in a highly degraded situation,” said Andrew Brooks, a project scientist with the UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute and the reserve’s director since 2001.

“Some good news and some bad news,” Brooks said. “It depends if you are a glass-is-half-full or glass-is-half-empty person.”

Brooks addressed a large crowd during a free event at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

The marsh managed by UCSB is “sort of at a tipping point,” Brooks explained.

“It’s able to partially recover on its own, but not fully recover on its own,” he said. “More impacts may push it toward an inability to recover, (and) beneficial changes we make might push it back over to that ability to recover on its own.”

Led by Santa Barbara County flood control officials, a significant debris-removal effort followed the Thomas Fire and Jan. 9 debris flows, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hauled materials.

The total amount of debris that entered the Carpinteria Salt Marsh would fill about 19,500 dumpsters. That is equivalent of roughly the distance from Montecito to Ventura, Brooks said.

The Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve.

Some of the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve channels have made strides toward recovery post-debris flows, but ‘many are still in a highly degraded situation,’ according to Andrew Brooks, a project scientist with the UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute and the reserve’s director since 2001. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

“You might imagine that amount of material flowing into the marsh would have a large impact,” Brooks said. “Indeed, it did.”

The Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve is located east of Montecito and below the Santa Ynez Mountains. It ends at the Pacific Ocean.

The wetland is a biodiversity “hot spot,” Brooks said, describing the diversity as “incredible.”

More than 250 species of plants, including many that are critically endangered, call it home, as well as more than 200 species of birds, and 150 species of marine and fish invertebrates have been observed, according to Brooks.

Native pacific oyster populations, crabs, shrimp and clams were “completely buried and suffocated by the large amounts of sediment” that choked some marsh channels after the debris flows, Brooks said.

The loss of species that provide food for a variety of organisms disturbed the food chain, Brooks noted. 

In addition, toxic compounds were introduced to the site as a result of burned eucalyptus and chaparral material that washed into the marsh, he said.

Scientists were facing an existential question in the wake of the debris flows — “What to do? Clean-up and restore, or monitor and learn?” 

They decided to “step back, look and learn,” Brooks said. “We wanted to look at how resilient coastal wetlands respond to these types of disturbances.”

Following the January 2018 storm, experts used a drone to conduct aerial surveys. They measured the marsh elevation to understand changes after the debris flows. Heat mapping showed where spots got shallower or deeper.

Surveys of the marsh’s flora and fauna showed it “became much shallower,” Brooks said. Several spots in the channels were filled with roughly 3 to 4 1/2 feet of material.

“Material that entered the salt marsh wasn’t confined solely to the channels,” Brooks said. “It spread out over the entire surface of the marsh.

“How did the flora and fauna react?” Brooks continued. “We are still figuring that out.”

Project scientists are conducting surveys of fish, birds and marine invertebrates “to see how they have responded to the changes in the physical condition that resulted in the debris flow.”

At Sunday’s gathering, Brooks spoke of actions and concrete steps for the future.

He argued for preserving what exists in the wetlands, and maintaining “connectedness” between marshes in California, as well as restoring wetlands “when and where possible,” and improving water quality of local streams.

“Poor water quality is another stress the marsh ecosystem has to face,” he said. “The more additional stressors we put on an ecosystem, the less able it can respond to large impacts, such as debris flows.”

Moving forward in the face of climate change, Brooks also suggested halting or slowing the spread of nonnative species in the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve. Non-native vegetation entered the site along with debris after the storm on Jan. 9, 2018.

“Those species are slowly spreading out in the marsh,” he said. “We are dealing with the impacts of the presence of those species in the marsh.”

Brooks was among several speakers that discussed the environmental and community impacts after the 2017 Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flows.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at bholland@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.