Off-channel areas are one of the most impacted aquatic habitats by humans globally, as extensive agricultural and urban development has limited them to roughly 10% of historical extent. This is also true for California’s Sacramento River Valley, where historically frequent widespread inundation has been reduced to a few off-channel water bodies along the mid-Sacramento River. This remaining shallow-water habitat provides crucial ecological benefits to multiple avian and fish species, but especially to floodplain-adapted species such as Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha
). Characterizing spatiotemporal off-channel dynamics, including inundation extent and residence time, is fundamental to better understanding the intrinsic value of such habitats and their potential to support recovery actions. Remote sensing techniques have been increasingly used to map surface water at regional and local scales, with improved resolutions. As such, this study maps off-channel inundation areas and describes their temporal dynamics by analyzing pixel-based time- series of multiple water indices, modified Normalized Difference Water Index (mNDWI) and the Automated Water Extraction Index (AWEI), generated from LandSat-8 and Sentinel-2 data between 2013–2021. Quantified off-channel area was similar with each water index and method used, but improved performance was associated with Sentinel-2 products and AWEI index to identify wetted areas under lower mainstem discharges. Results indicate an uneven distribution of off-channel habitat in the study area, with limited inundated areas in upstream reaches (<16% of total off-channel area for greater flows). In addition, much less habitat exists for flows under 400 m3
/s, an important migration cue for endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, limiting juvenile access to areas with enhanced rearing conditions. Off-channel habitat residence times averaged between 7 and 16 days, primarily defined by the rate of receding flows, with rapid flow recession providing marginal off-channel habitat. This study shows reasonable performance of moderate resolution LandSat-8 and Sentinel-2 remote sensing imagery to characterize shallow-water inundated habitat in higher-order rivers, and as a method to inform restoration and native fish recovery efforts.
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