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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Landscape Transformation and Variation in Invasive Species Abundance Drive Change in Primary Production of Aquatic Vegetation in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta


Conversion of wetlands in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta beginning in the mid-1800s resulted in a pronounced shift from a wetland-dominated food web to one driven by open-water primary producers. Submersed and floating aquatic vegetation (SAV and FAV) now rank highest in potential net primary production (NPP) among producer groups, and provide a comparable amount of carbon to the detrital food web as marshes. However, important details of this contribution that relate to shifts in species composition and habitat extent were not understood. Here, we review how changes in aquatic vegetation influence NPP and trophic support from the historical to modern periods, within the modern period (the last 2 decades), and under future management and climate scenarios. We estimate that NPP of SAV and FAV during the historical period was approximately half that of today, before increases in open water and introduction of the highly productive water primrose. During the modern period (the last 20 years), high interannual variability in the extent and relative composition of aquatic vegetation species has driven significant variation in total NPP. This recent temporal variation is 6 to 13 times larger than projected changes in production from the potential future scenarios we modeled, including a reduction in FAV by 20% through control measures, substantial wetland restoration (and thus increased channel area that could support SAV and FAV), and increased salinity intrusion in the western Delta with climate warming, which favors native species with greater salinity tolerance. Large temporal swings in NPP of SAV and FAV cascade to influence the degree of carbon that flows to consumers through detrital pathways and herbivory. This volatility and interannual inconsistency in aquatic vegetation support of food webs make achieving wetland restoration goals for the Delta—which could lead to recovery of a portion of the NPP lost since historical times—even more imperative.

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