Supporting restoration decisions through integration of tree‐ring and modeling data: Reconstructing flow and salinity in the San Francisco estuary over the past millennium

Paul H. Hutton, David M. Meko, Sujoy B. Roy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


This work presents updated reconstructions of watershed runoff to San Francisco Estuary from tree‐ring data to AD 903, coupled with models relating runoff to freshwater flow to the estuary and salinity intrusion. We characterize pre‐development freshwater flow and salinity conditions in the estuary over the past millennium and compare this characterization with contemporary conditions to better understand the magnitude and seasonality of changes over this time. This work shows that the instrumented flow record spans the range of runoff patterns over the past millennium (averaged over 5, 10, 20 and 100 years), and thus serves as a reasonable basis for planning-level evaluations of historical hydrologic conditions in the estuary. Over annual timescales we show that, although median freshwater flow to the estuary has not changed significantly, it has been more variable over the past century compared to pre‐development flow conditions. We further show that the contemporary period is generally associated with greater spring salinity intrusion and lesser summer–fall salinity intrusion relative to the pre‐development period. Thus, salinity intrusion in summer and fall months was a common occurrence under pre‐development conditions and has been moderated in the contemporary period due to the operations of upstream reservoirs, which were designed to hold winter and spring runoff for release in summer and fall. This work also con-firms a dramatic decadal‐scale hydrologic shift in the watershed from very wet to very dry conditions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; while not unprecedented, these shifts have been seen only a few times in the past millennium. This shift resulted in an increase in salinity intrusion in the first three decades of the 20th century, as documented through early records. Population growth and extensive watershed modification during this period exacerbated this underlying hydrologic shift. Putting this shift in the context of other anthropogenic drivers is important in understanding the historical response of the estuary and in setting salinity targets for estuarine restora-tion. By characterizing the long‐term behavior of San Francisco Estuary, this work supports deci-sion‐making in the State of California related to flow and salinity management for restoration of the estuarine ecosystem.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2139
JournalWater (Switzerland)
Issue number15
StatePublished - Aug 1 2021


  • Estuarine salinity
  • Flow reconstruction
  • Pre‐development
  • Salinity intrusion
  • Tree‐ring

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Aquatic Science
  • Biochemistry


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