Biological Sciences, Santa Barbara City College pipeline center for sustainability

Biology 130: Methods in Field Biology

Field Technique:  GPS and GIS

carpinteria salt marsh

Background: (From the CSMR website and management plan)

Carpinteria Salt Marsh is an estuary located on the south coast of Santa Barbara County in southern California (Fig. 1). It covers approximately 230 acres (93 hectares) and includes intertidal estuarine wetlands, adjacent palustrine wetlands and some subtidal deep water habitat in natural and artificial channels (Fig. 2). The estuary provides habitat for a rich assemblage of native plants and animals including many species of special interest such as endangered plants (e.g., Salt Marsh Bird's-beak) and animals (e.g., Light-footed Clapper Rail). An estimated 90% of the estuarine wetlands in southern California have been destroyed by filling or dredging during the past century, and the remaining 10% are largely degraded fragments of historically larger estuaries. For these reasons, the extent and quality of the natural resources of Carpinteria Salt Marsh made it a likely candidate for inclusion into the University of California Natural Reserve System. Acquisition of 120 acres (49 hectares) occurred in June 1977, following which the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve (CSMR) became the 23rd reserve added to the UC Natural Reserve System (Fig. 3).

Ecosystem Functions and Socio-Economic Values

Carpinteria Salt Marsh provides many important ecosystem functions that can be categorized into several major groups: hydrology, water quality and nutrient cycling, food chain support, and habitat. The hydrology function at Carpinteria includes shoreline protection from major winter storms, storm runoff capacity during flooding, and protection of groundwater resources as a transition between saline and freshwater resources (e.g., USDA Soil Conservation District 1976a&b, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1984). The water quality and nutrient cycling function includes improvement in water quality through conversion or assimilation of pollutants in watershed runoff and ground water seepage and the cycling of nutrients among watershed, estuarine, and marine sources (e.g., Page in press, 1990b, 1993a, 1995c).

The food chain support function at Carpinteria is complex and wide-reaching (e.g., Page 1996a, Page et al. 1990a). It includes the assimilation of nutrients and detritus by primary producers such as micro-organisms and plants through the growth and reproduction of various macro-invertebrates such as molluscs and arthropods. It also includes the predation on marsh organisms by estuarine-restricted vertebrate animals as well as estuarine visitors such as marine fish, migratory birds, and local mammals. Thus, as with the nutrient cycling function, the food chain function extends beyond the estuary and into the surrounding region and beyond.

The habitat function includes both extant and historic types. Existing habitat functions are perhaps highest for endangered species including nesting habitats for resident endangered birds (e.g., Light-footed Clapper Rails and Belding's Savannah Sparrows) and endangered plants (e.g., Salt Marsh Bird's-beak and Salt Marsh Goldfields). Other existing habitat functions at Carpinteria Salt Marsh include: habitat for preservation of native biodiversity such as endemic, estuarine-restricted organisms; nursery functions for marine fish such as California Halibut and Diamond Turbot; and habitats for migratory birds such as various shore birds and ducks. Historically, Carpinteria Salt Marsh also provided habitat for anadromous fish including Steelhead Trout that once spawned in Santa Monica Creek and for an endangered brackish-water fish, the Tidewater Goby (see Appendix C, Checklist of Invertebrate and Vertebrate Animals). Steelhead Trout can enter the estuary, but because of stream alterations can no longer reach watershed sites to spawn; and Tidewater Gobies have not been collected for approximately 70 years, apparently because brackish-water habitats are no longer sustained in the estuary.

Socio-economic values of Carpinteria Salt Marsh can be grouped into two major categories: consumptive and non-consumptive types. Consumptive values include the current important role of the estuary in the local sports fishery for California Halibut, because of the growth of young-of-the-year individuals in estuarine channels. Consumptive values also include the historic local role in production of salt and oysters and the growth of culturally important plants (e.g., Anemopsis californica [Yerba Mansa]) used by Chumash and perhaps earlier cultures.

Non-consumptive values include research and educational activities (see Part II, 6.0 Research Program, 7.0 Education Program, and 8.0 Public Service Program) conducted by the UC Natural Reserve System and other public interest groups, and passive recreational activities such as painting (e.g., the Oak Group, Plein Air Artists, and Painters of California Reserves), bird watching (e.g., Santa Barbara Audubon and Lompoc Audubon), and guided tours (e.g., Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History). Another important socio-economic value that is less tangible is the aesthetic value of the estuary and its contribution to the overall quality of life in the Carpinteria Valley for residents as well as visitors. This value is clearly demonstrated by the enormous public support and decade-long investment in effort and money to purchase, restore, and provide interpretive access to the Ash Avenue Wetlands along the eastern margin of Carpinteria Salt Marsh (see Part II, 12.0 Restoration and Enhancement Program).

CSMR Flora and Fauna

The flora of Carpinteria Salt Marsh has been of interest to many scientists for at least 90 years. Historical records and collections have made possible a reconstruction of the floristic diversity of the estuary and vicinity before many impacts of urbanization occurred. A synopsis of the findings has shown that at least 55 vascular plants families containing 153 genera and 252 species are known to occur or have occurred at Carpinteria Salt Marsh, including the estuary's historical limits and adjacent sand dunes. Of those plants, 104 species (45%) are native. Eleven species listed for Carpinteria Salt Marsh and vicinity are possibly extirpated, representing 17% of the 64 native wetland species. Eleven species growing presently at the estuary are regionally rare plants, and two species (Salt Marsh Bird's-beak and Salt Marsh Goldfields) are considered endangered.

The fauna of Carpinteria Salt Marsh also has been studied by many researchers from UCSB and other institutions. At least 190 bird species, 37 fish species, 11 mammal species, 5 herpetofauna species, and over 100 invertebrate species have been observed, collected, or reported from Carpinteria Salt Marsh. The estuary is important for resident species including (1) birds such as many shorebirds, wading birds, gulls and terns, and passerines; (2) fish such as Arrow Gobies, and California Killifish; and estuarine-restricted crustaceans and molluscs. The estuary also provides important habitat for migratory birds and habitat for seasonal use by species of special interest such as regionally-declining and threatened or endangered bird species including Long-billed Curlews, Least Terns, and Snowy Plovers. Carpinteria Salt Marsh also provides important nursery functions for various marine fish including Diamond Turbot, Stary Flounder, and the economically-important California Halibut.


carp watershed

The Carp Salt Marsh is at the terminus of a watershed. In the above aerial photo you can see how water would move down from the mountains and pass through agricultural, then residential and commercial land, finally emptying out in the salt marsh.


The change in the landscape and smaller size of the marsh results in more pollutants entering the marsh and less area of marsh to take care of the pollutants.

marsh 1869

Due to the compromised ecosystem service of biofiltration this can mean more polutants can enter the marine system.

More specifically, there are nearby sources of pollutants that have damaged habitat.

carp greenhouses
(On the left side of this photo you can see greenhouses, most of which grow flowers, the largest agricultural crop of Carpinteria. You can also make out a small stream that leads from the greenhouses to a section of the marsh that has growths of bright green algae. Copyright (C) 2002-2015 Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project,

The large greenhouse operations were the source of nutrient pollution (Nitrogen and Phosphorous) due to the run-off of fertilizer used in the growing of flowers. These nutrients made their eay into the marsh and fed populations of native algae. These algae populations grew, consuming oxygen at night degrading the habitat. At the extreme the large algae populations could take the dissolved oxygen levels to near 0, making that part of the marsh uninhabitable for most aquatic species except anaerobic bacteria. This degredation of aquatic habitat from the human input of nutrients is called Cultural Eutrophication.

The reserve manager was within his rights to take the greenhouse growers to court for violating the Clean Water Act, and possibly the Endangered Species Act. Had this occurred then the pollution would have likely stopped, but the greenhouse growers and the greater community (the greenhouses are one of the largest employers in the area) would likely not look favorably on the Marsh and the Marsh manager.

Instead the Marsh manager employed an Environmental Studies class to look for a creative solution. What they found was that the water and fertilizer was applied through aerial spraying inside the greenhouses. This meant there was a fair bit of waste as much of the water and nutrients fell to the floor where it ran into a creek, then into the marsh. They proposed that the growers use a drip system that decreased waste. They went further and suggested a system that caught any water that dripped through the flats of flowers and recycled that water back to the system. This further decreased waste of water and gave the flowers more contact with the fertilizer.

The savings in water and fertilizer quickly paid for the initial cost of the new equipment and the growers have saved money ever since. The marsh benefitted from less nutrient inputs. The end result is that now the greenhouse growers are very supportive of the marsh and even volunteer their time regularly. There are still occassional problems with nutrient input when the system is not working optimally, and now because of good relations the manager can simply check in with the growers to address the problem.


Management of the reserve is no small task. There are nearly 20 different owners within the marsh and the marsh manager has to coordinate with all of them. This again shows the need to make good relationships. The ability to effectiely communicate and find resolution is essential to be successful in these circumstances.

marsh ownership

marsh general features


We will be mapping an invasive species of Sea lavender that threatens native species in the marsh.


lymonium species
The plants on the left and right are the native California sea lavender (Limonium californicum), the one in the middle with the smaller leaves in a tight rosette is the invasive European sea lavender (Limonium duriusculum).

More on the impacts and ecology of invasive sea lavender species in California:



In this lab we will use the Garmin GPSmap 62s gps unit. This is a recreational level gps unit so its accuracy is not as good as a professional level gps unit, but those more accurate units cost approximately $15,000.

These units work by connecting to satellites orbitting the earth and using these signals to determine where the unit is on the earth's surface. The more sattellites and the longer they are collecting a signal the more accurate the point.


By pressing the "Mark" button on the gps unit, the unit records the point in its memory, called a "Waypoint." You can press "Mark" anytime no matter what screen you are on and it will record that point.

To take advantage of the greater accuracy, however, we need to use the "Waypoint Averaging" option which you can select from the main menu.

You can get to the Main Menu from any screen by pressing the "Menu" button. You can also press the "Page" button to scroll through screens until you get to the "Main Menu" screen.

  • Use the button with the arrows to scroll down until you get to "Waypoint Averaging."
  • Press the "Enter" button.
  • Scroll up to "Create Waypoint."
  • Press the "Enter" button.

You will now see a screen that is giving you a measure of "Sample Confidence" that is going up with time, and a timer.

Stay at that point for 2 minutes (120 seconds). Longer than that and you won't get much more accurate.

When done record the data point in your field notebook and on the data sheet.

gps unit


Waypoint collection works for individual plants. For clumps of plants we can use the "Area Calculation."

Select "Area Calculation" from the "Main Menu."

The screen will tell you to select "Start" then walk around the area.

When done select "Done."

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Revised 26 January, 2015
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