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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Managed Wetlands for Climate Action: Potential Greenhouse Gas and Subsidence Mitigation in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta


In the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta (Delta), widespread drainage of historical wetlands has led to extensive subsidence and peat carbon losses, as well as high ongoing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Large-scale wetland restoration and conversion to rice fields has the potential to mitigate these effects while conferring flood protection and creating habitat for wetland species. To explore the scale of these potential benefits, this study evaluated the effects of seven Delta-wide land-use scenarios on carbon stocks, land-surface elevation, GHG emissions, and habitat. Peat mapping and data from peat cores indicate that soil carbon stocks have decreased between the early 1800s and 2010s from 288 ± 15 to 145 ± 14 million metric tons (Mt) of carbon (C). If existing land uses continue, the Delta could lose an additional 8.3 Mt C during the coming 40 years, equal to average GHG emissions of 1.2 Mt CO2 equivalents (CO2e) yr-1. Future restoration and rice-farming scenarios indicate that wetland restoration could theoretically halt GHG emissions, converting the Delta from a large GHG source to a weak net source or sink. Across three future scenarios based on existing restoration targets, wetland creation and conversion to rice fields reduced GHG emissions by 0.39 to 0.67 Mt CO2e yr-1, with per-area benefits of 16 to 28 t CO2e per hectare (ha) yr-1. Differences among scenarios in extents of wetland types influenced their relative benefits for different management goals. Tidal restoration and conversion to rice fields enhanced habitat benefits and offered a source of agricultural income, but with reduced GHG mitigation compared with conversion to peat-building wetlands. This highlights the importance of clear objectives when developing land-use plans. A strategic land-management portfolio that includes rice fields and both impounded and tidal wetlands could be designed to provide GHG and subsidence mitigation while offering a diverse suite of benefits for ecosystems and people.

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