Bar-built estuaries are the dominant estuary type in California, and many of these small estuaries are subject to closure with a sand barrier separating a lagoon estuary from the ocean for days, months or even years. In the lagoon impounded behind the sand barrier, water levels may rise or fall depending on net water budget and water quality extremes may develop. These conditions and the obstruction of fish passage motivate managed breaching of the sand barrier in many systems statewide – an intervention that alleviates or pre-empts environmental problems, but which also can result in undesirable secondary impacts due to the acute effect of a single breach or the chronic effect of repeated breaching over years. Management decisions are based on an implicit trade-off between anticipated benefits and costs that depend on the values and priorities of stakeholders.
This report was written to provide an overview of considerations for managed breaching in California. It presents a synthesis of processes and phenomena related to mouth closure and breaching in general and uses this to identify potential impacts of breaching, without intending any judgment of which impacts are more or less desirable. Three specific systems are reviewed in detail: Los Peñasquitos Lagoon in San Diego County, Scott Creek Estuary in San Mateo County and Russian River Estuary in Sonoma County. While there are fundamental similarities in the closure and breaching cycle across all bar-built estuaries statewide, there is also an immense diversity between these systems due to differences in size, in hydrology (wet north to dry south), and in development (rural, urban, agricultural, road/rail). The local community is likely to develop the best management strategy where there is significant effort and experience in local monitoring, science, and stakeholder consultation. However, where there is limited monitoring, science or consultation, the considerations outlined in this report provide preliminary guidance – and comparison with one of the study systems can provide more specific insight to the potential impacts of breaching management decisions.
We synthesize current understanding related to how mouth state influences estuary functions and conditions, which in turn affect ecological services. While both natural and managed breaching affect many processes and phenomena in the estuary, breaching events and managed breaching regimes do not occur in isolation and many other factors affect the estuary functions and conditions, including freshwater inputs, the adjacent landscape, and stressors in the watershed. However, managed breaching is one of very few short-term management options and therefore a valuable adaptive management tool, specifically in systems that are already perturbed or impacted by human encroachment. Although emergency breaches may be required in rare occasions, our recommendation is to develop a breaching strategy for specific systems in which breaching has been used or in which it is likely to be used as a management tool. In this context, we recommend ways in which science can provide improved support for management decisions and identify a few systems in California in which there is already a well-developed, science-based management plan.