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OUTINGS: Ventura County

Hidden Wonders

Low-profile Carpinteria Salt Marsh is home to an unusual collection of plant and animal life.


You've probably passed the Carpinteria Salt Marsh while driving along the glorious section of the 101 Freeway between Ventura and Santa Barbara. You may have glanced oceanward and noted railroad tracks fronting the flat wetlands of the marsh.

At first glimpse, the flat terrain with stubby plantings and little variation in color seems a gloomy wasteland, a shabby second cousin to gleaming sand beaches where tide pools vibrate with life, and ocean waves splash and foam.

But get inside and the marsh works its magic, becoming ever more beautiful as closer investigation reveals its complexity and diversity.

Before a visit to the marsh, I reviewed my collection of books about California terrain to recall that a marsh, like a bog or a swamp, is one of the Earth's soggy zones, the low places periodically or seasonally moist or flooded with water. Marshes develop in lowlands such as flood plains and muddy deltas of rivers and creeks where drainage is poor.

Salt marshes are unusual because they form along the ocean coastline, frequently near shallow lagoons, particularly those sheltered by sandbars or barrier islands. The vegetation in sea-saltwater marshes is regularly flooded by ocean water surging in and out twice a day and by fresh water flowing into the sea from mountain rivers and creeks.

Because of the delicate balance between tidal salt water and nutrient-rich fresh water, salt marshes are among the most productive habitats in the world and support a large variety of animal and plant life. They serve as breeding grounds for waterfowl, fish and other wildlife. For some endangered species, such as the salt marsh bird's beak plant and the light-footed clapper rail, the marsh is the last stronghold.

The Carpinteria Salt Marsh has garnered much attention for the past 20 years as one of the few estuaries that remain in Southern California.

Cooperation among concerned citizens, city and county agencies, trusts and University of California scientists has not only preserved the marsh but enhanced it.

The marsh is accessible to the public, thanks to a restoration project that includes the Carpinteria Marsh Park, a city park with marsh access and interpretive programs.

Upon arriving at the marsh, our small group was met by Wayne Ferren, manager of the marsh reserve and associate director of the UCSB Natural Reserve System.

Ferren, who also is executive director of the UC Santa Barbara Museum of Systematics and Ecology, gave us the geologic and political background of the marsh, explaining that it is an estuarine trough covering 230 acres at the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

The Santa Ynez mountain range above the foothills feeds the creeks that deposit sediment into the marsh. If it weren't for channels built in the late 1960s to convey storm runoff to the ocean and reduce the potential for flooding in the city, this sediment would exceed the capacity of the marsh. Construction of a rock retaining wall has helped keep open the mouth of the marsh.

No plants grow in the sloping areas of the marsh where large patches of highly salty mud predominate. And, at first glance, the plants that do grow seem less than spectacular.

Dave Hubbard, an expert on the plants of the marsh, bounded about the terrain like a puppy finally off the leash, bringing these plants to life for the group. Hubbard is part of the Marine Science Institute and the Natural Reserve System at UCSB, where he specializes in endangered plants, among other wetland topics.

He described the variables--frequency of flooding, depth of water, salinity and length of submergence--that determine where plants grew. These plants often have to contend with a salt concentration as high as 10%, due to evaporation of water in the irregularly flooded zones.

Salt-tolerant plants, known as halophytes, don't absorb much water but have thick, leathery leaves to retain the water they have. Plants at the mud fringes such as glasswort and sea blite can tolerate high salinity because they excrete excess salt from their shoots. Their roots stabilize the mud and allow other plants to become established.

Others, such as sea lavender and narrow-leafed ice plant, are deciduous, shedding excess salt with their leaves. Holding up an ice plant, Hubbard seemed to chastise it while explaining, "This plant sequesters salt in the epidermal cells of the leaves. When it dies, the salt released by rain results in a high-salinity dead zone. Look how there are no plants growing around it."

Hubbard's interests include endangered plants such as salt marsh bird's beak. The bird's beak is restricted to high marsh habitat where rainfall determines its germination. Its resourcefulness as a root parasite allows it to survive summer heat and drought after most of the other annuals in the high marsh go to seed. Hubbard also pointed out shore grass, arrow weed, jaumea, and the plentiful, and edible, pickleweed.

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