Bushy Lake Restoration

What we do

The Bushy Lake Restoration Project is a wetland/riparian restoration, monitoring and citizen science/community education project located near Cal Expo on the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. This is the first time that a long-term collaborative project has been developed between the Sacramento County Department of Regional Parks and the CSU Sacramento, Environmental Studies Department. The Earth Stewardship Initiative was initiated at the Ecological Society of America Conference in Sacramento in August 2015 in collaboration with Yale University, UC Davis, Sacramento County Parks, and the American River Parkway Foundation.


Matt Owens, Tom Henry and Andrew Margenot looking at soils at Bushy Lake

Matt Owens, Tom Henry and Andrew Margenot looking at soils at Bushy Lake

The 2014 fire at Cal Expo burned over 160 acres of the American River Parkway (ARP) and provided an opportunity to create a fire-resilient landscape and establish long-term monitoring and adaptive management at Bushy Lake and in the Lower ARP. The restoration experiment was established in January 2015 with the assistance of volunteers from the American River Parkway Foundation. Monitoring of wildlife species and adaptive management on the restoration research projects has occurred continuously for two years and helps achieve policy goals designated in the American River Parkway Plan.
Three students from CSU Sacramento (Mary Xiong, Tom Henry and Kayla Henry) completed their Senior Thesis in Environmental Studies and graduated in the spring semester of 2015. Matt Owens graduated in spring semester 2016. We are planning a new research project to continue the restoration after the fire; to monitor avian species, Western Pond Turtle and Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle populations; and to engage the community in education and citizen science activities. Mary Xiong, Mary Maret and Dr. Stevens plan to submit this research for publication in a peer reviewed journal in 2016.
Bushy Lake provides a vital living laboratory for experiential and high impact student learning and faculty-student research. This project includes the commitment of CSU Sacramento to education, involving students in experiential learning and research, generating applied research to contribute to the lower American River and developing a Sense of Place. The College Of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies (SSIS) is the window between the University and Community. The Bushy Lake project highlights the value of the interconnection between community/ civic interests and interdisciplinary engagement / applied research to enhance, protect and preserve the lower American River Parkway as a critical ecological resource for Sacramento.
The Bushy Lake project provides community service for students and citizen monitoring for Sacramento County Department of Regional Parks to fulfill obligations and policies under the American River Parkway Plan. The environmental education element of this gathering at Bushy Lake, and the follow-up STEAM science classes and research on our CSU Sacramento campus, creates a science and policy partnership that benefits the Sacramento and State area. We also are delighted that the environmental education aspect of the project incorporates under-represented minority children, building a sense of place, refuge and belonging in nature. Having all children participate in outdoor experiences is an essential element of our mission.
Citizen science, positive publicity through CSU Sacramento, and public restoration projects all create good will in the greater community by enrolling students and volunteers in land stewardship and citizen science. This project provides value added for Sacramento County Parks by providing publicity for the good works they are doing on the ARP, building public confidence, and letting the public and policy-makers know that Parks are doing good things in the Parkway. Another intended outcome is to create long term monitoring on the Parkway.

Our goals

Bushy Lake Restoration

Bushy Lake Restoration

A primary goal at Bushy Lake is to envision and manage the lower American River as a community. As the famous conservationist Aldo Leopold said, “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”


1. Bushy Lake Restoration

The primary goal of the restoration experiment is to provide a cost-effective ecologically relevant prescription for the restoration of the Bushy Lake area into a sustainable wetland with fire-resilient native understory vegetation. The restoration experiment is designed to study vegetation and soil responses to fire and the opportunity to enhance post-burn recovery based on our current ecological knowledge.

The area around Bushy Lake provides a suitable location for ecological restoration using native plant species that are resilient to fire. Before European settlement, the Nissenan, Miwok and Maidu tribes practiced Traditional Resource Management through burning and other tending practices of culturally significant resources. Santa Barbara sedge (Carex barbarae) and creeping wild rye (Elymus triticoides) are native species that have adapted to frequent fires, and were chosen for understory restoration because they are resilient to fire. Restoring the native understory vegetation will promote accelerated succession of habitat for ARP flora and fauna, as well as controlling invasive species. One of our experiments is directly adjacent to the public trail to provide a public education opportunity on ecological restoration and fire resiliency; we recommend expanding this area in the coming year. Project experiments will provide a visible example of the proactive effort to manage fire in the parkway with volunteer participation, public education and monitoring.

Another major goal is to monitor the entire Bushy Lake Nature Study Area using the California Rapid Assessment Method (CRAM) module for depressional wetlands, quantitative vegetation assessment soils evaluation, and monitoring for avian species and biotic structure for bird habitat. This data provides insight into habitat conditions and overall health of the ecosystem and can be used to monitor the success of conservation efforts.

This project is consistent with policies of the American River Parkway Plan, listed below, and provides monitoring and adaptive management recommendations to meet ARP goals:

  • 2.0 – Developing a collaborative relationship with colleges for assistance with research, monitoring and survey projects,
  • 2.1 – Maintain and enhance native vegetation in the parkway,
  • 2.2 – Reintroduce native vegetation in the parkway (Carex barbarae and Elymus triticoides),
  • 2.4 – Removal of non-native invasive vegetation,
  • 3 – Increase wildlife habitat connectivity and corridors,
  • 4 – Improve parkway resources, environmental quality and natural resources including ecological restoration of degraded resources,
  • 11 – Manage, enhance and protect riparian aquatic habitat (Bushy Lake) especially as concerns federally or state listed or watch species (for example Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetles, western pond turtles, Swainson’s hawks, wood ducks, river otters),
  • 4 – Water Quality Protection – Beneficial uses – wildlife habitat and recreation,
  • 19 – Operate and Manage Bushy Lake in a manner that maximizes value to fish and wildlife. This includes maintenance (monitoring and adaptive management) to provide suitable habitat, including adequate water depths and appropriate vegetation,
  • 20 – Restore and enhance wetland and riparian habitat around Bushy Lake. and
  • 21 – Remove non-native weeds and create grassland foraging habitat for raptor species.

Preliminary Project Results

Soils – Collect soil samples for area soil survey and assessment.

We measured the soils health at Bushy Lake in the restoration area, as well as the ability of soils to sequester carbon. Soil C stocks to a depth of 25 in were estimated to range from approximately 38-60 t ha-1 with a mean of 50.9 t ha-1. Restoring vegetation and mulch to disturbed soils at Bushy Lake is a management option that increases surface soil C and is therefore a potential strategy to increase net C storage in soils. Restoration of grasslands has been found to increase C storage at rates of 0.3-6 t ha-1 yr-1. Studies indicate that restoration of soils and native vegetation promotes resiliency to disturbance and increased the potential to out-compete invasive plant species.

California Rapid Assessment Method (CRAM)

We established baseline monitoring at Bushy Lake using the California Rapid Assessment Method (CRAM) depressional module to determine overall wetland area health. CRAM results varied within each of the four assessment areas and closely matched the extent to which each area was impacted by fire. Statewide, CRAM points range from 39 to 94, and are compared to other depressional wetlands scores recorded on eCRAM. Index scores for Bushy Lake averaged of 67 in the northern part of Bushy Lake and 61 on the southern part of the lake. A difference of 6 points is considered significant, meaning a significant difference in “wetland health” between the northern unburned assessment areas and the southern burned assessment areas. The overall scores are low to middling compared to other depressional wetlands in the state. We intend to use the CRAM methodology to monitor changes in wetland health over time and to evaluate and the contribution of restoration and management. The Northwestern corner of the lake had the highest CRAM score (75) and was the least disturbed. That area was burned in the September 15, 20-16, fire and it will be important to revegetate in December-January with the winter rains. Key stressors include invasive species encroachment, unreliable water supply, trespassing, littering, and the constant threat of wild fire.

Monitoring Avian Species, Flora and Fauna

Historically, Bushy Lake has provided vital habitat for a variety of birds and is a popular birding location (Audubon Society). Birds are more easily observed than other wildlife and respond quickly to changes in their environment; therefore, they are ideal candidates to measure ecosystem improvement during the Bushy Lake Restoration Project and post-restoration monitoring. Furthermore, in the absence of a specific indicator species, birds can be used to gauge overall ecosystem success.

The following fauna were observed while monitoring.

The Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata) relies on a permanent water source with floating woody vegetation and muddy banks for basking. We observed over 20 pond turtles at one time, and believe Bushy Lake provides a refugia for the population. We also observed two female turtles heading toward the levees to lay their eggs.  The Western Pond Turtle has suffered a 99% decline in some areas and is listed as a species of special concern in California. Although this species is not yet recognized as federally endangered in California, its status is currently under review (Center for Biological Diversity, 2015). If Bushy Lake is allowed to dry up, the 700m distance to the American River may result in extirpation of the turtles form the area.

The North American River Otter (Lontra Canadensis) is keystone carnivore and another Bushy Lake resident that requires a permanent water source. We observed a pair of river otters swimming up to us, barking at us with nasal vocalizations, and demonstrating they wanted us out of their territory. This behavior may indicate a denning site.

Elderberry (Sambucus Mexicana) is spouting and growing prolifically through the study area. Lengthy spring rains and nutrient supplements from ash have resulted in rapid re-growth. The elderberry provides habitat for the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle (Desmocerus californicus dimorphus), a threatened species known to occur on the American River. We looked for but did not observe any exit holes, and recommend monitoring next year.

Nesting pair of Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) were observed on the west side of Bushy Lake with an occupied nest in 2015 and 2016. We also observed many species of woodpeckers, northern flickers, yellow bellied sapsuckers, wood ducks, mallards, great blue herons, tree swallows, great horned owls, spotted towhees, and many other species recorded in our survey data.

We observed one species of flycatcher in the Southwest assessment area. Although we were unable to identify the exact species, it is important to note because there is an endangered species of flycatcher that migrates through the Sacramento region in the spring. The Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax trailii) shows a nearly exclusive preference for areas with riparian cover (Sedgwick & Knopf, 1992). This species is listed as level S1 endangered by ESA (CNDDB, 2015).

Monitoring Vegetation

. Fifty-two percent of the plants sampled were native. The prolonged spring rains and additional nitrogen from ash stimulated invasive species, with 39% invasive plants, and 9% non-native plant species. The poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) (23% relative cover) and prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) (3.8% relative cover) were over six feet tall and dominate the site. Tall whitetop (Lepidium latifolium) (0.4%) were beginning to invade the disturbed sites. Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) was patchy; without management, these tall invasive species are shading and eliminating the native understory species.

Monitoring and Adaptive Management

Long-term monitoring and adaptive management will be necessary on this site. A weed control plan will be essential to implement. Weeds, with the stimulation of nutrients from ash and extended spring rains, grew over six feet tall in 2015. The best way to control invasive species is to establish healthy soil and competitive vegetation on site. Watering new plants will also be important to get plants established if drought conditions continue to persist.

The experiment demonstrates a proactive effort in restoring a riparian habitat into a fire resilient area which would allow for increase in habitat value and native plants. Recommendations to ensure that proactive efforts will continue to expand restoration and protect this region are to:

  • Utilize the public, community, CSU Sacramento students, and American River Parkway Foundation volunteers to engage in citizen science for long-term monitoring and adaptive management of the project, and
  • Improve public outreach to community to bring together and educate the public about the significance of wetlands, riparian forests, and wildlife residing there.

Restoring native plant species, removing non-native weeds, enhancing the ecological resiliency of Bushy Lake and its surroundings, strengthening community outreach, stewardship, and accessibility along the Parkway are all consistent with the policies and goals of the American River Parkway Plan (County of Sacramento et al., 2008). With the continuation of the experiment and future research, the plan would be one step further to reaching its goals.

In order to help the Sacramento County Department of Regional Parks achieve these goals, we recommend that volunteer Sacramento State students “adopt” the Bushy Lake Restoration Project and that these and other volunteers manually weed and replant experiment areas. We would also like to expand experimental research and long-term monitoring and adaptive management, to establish a long-term and reciprocal relationship with Regional Parks.