Moro Cojo Slough, CA

Climate Aware welcomes three diverse interns who study a new restoration marsh and leave a discovery and two awards in their wake.

A newly restored wetland system gives the Moro Cojo Slough context and complexity

In 2007, the California Fish and Game Commission established the Moro Cojo State Marine Reserve. The reserve is one of only 29 nationally protected watersheds dedicated for use as a field laboratory for scientific research and estuarine education. Locally known as the Moro Cojo Slough, it consists of nearly 300 acres of land that encompasses protected marshes, tidal creeks, and the biodiverse wildlife that inhabits them. Yet the land use of this watershed – and many others in the state – remains dominated by agriculture and has resulted in substantial loss of California wetlands (i.e. historical drainage and cultivation of muddy waste lands with carbon-rich soil). A new restoration project within the watershed was funded in January 2017, and Central Coast Wetlands Group began construction of Tottino II, neighboring the previously restored Tottino I. The new, much larger restoration site was completed in late 2019. The rainy seasons between 2020 and 2022 marked an important milestone for young Tottino II: the pond system finally filled with enough water to begin studying it. 


Figure 1. An interactive map of the Moro Cojo State Marine Reserve. The red pin marks the center of Tottino II where the site boundaries appear in an arrowhead shape. Site boundaries are made visible by historic wetland berms, the pacific rail line, the Moro Cojo, and a dirt access road.

The 35-acre historic tidal marsh was converted to farm land, lie abandoned, and now exists as a restored tidal marsh with a carefully engineered pond system (Fig. 2). The five ponds, connected by tidal creeks, are a human made attempt to recreate what wetlands do free of cost: improve local water quality, enhance biodiversity, reduce coastal erosion, and retain episodic flood waters. Most importantly, the ponds create a brackish to freshwater refuge in an otherwise marine and homogenous Moro Cojo Slough. During the first water year in 2022, we observed a seasonal surface water connection between Tottino II and the Moro Cojo Slough in winter. During the dry summer, tidal creeks connecting the ponds began drying up.

Figure 2. Drone imagery captured in spring 2022 illustrating the five ponds at Tottino II and adjacent hydrologic connections. Surface water inputs may enter the site during (A) flood events from the Moro Cojo Slough, (B and C) sump-pump activation from adjacent agricultural ditches, and/or (D) a flood tide in the Moro Cojo Slough (Greene et al. In Prep).

Climate Aware mentors three undergraduate interns to study Tottino II

During the summer of 2022, Climate Aware’s team grew to include three undergraduate interns from California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB): Valerie Li, Valeria “Vee” Rodriguez, and Sonia Kortenkamp. Over nine weeks, they completed independent projects at Tottino II through a collaboration with the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center (UROC) and the Central Coast Wetlands Group, lead by our co-director and their instructor, Andria “Andi” Greene.

Over five weeks of field work, our interns collaborated together and with Andi to survey birds, collect and identify aquatic invertebrates, assess water quality, and survey vegetative cover. Each week the Climate Aware co-directors, Dr. Nicole Foster and Alexander Greene, took turns meeting with the interns to review their progress and offer guidance and support. Being among the first scientists to study the new site Andi’s GEOL 460 course in spring published the first report meant that the work produced by our interns would set a benchmark for Year 1 and inform how the site will evolve over time. Through local collaboration, we hope our work enlists future research and broadens the much-needed understanding of tidal marsh restoration in the Salinas River Valley/Elkhorn Slough watersheds.

Table 1. Aquatic organisms identified at Tottino II across locations during summer 2022. Species level classification was achieved in some cases, but in others “sp.” designates genus level identification only, and a single word designates family level classification.

The first vertebrate is discovered

Valerie Li was a senior at CSUMB studying Environmental Science, Technology, & Policy during her internship. She worked in Andi’s GEOL 460 capstone course in spring of 2022, where she eagerly joined the “BIO” team to study invertebrates and plants at Tottino II. Following her interest with microscope work and a desire for independent research, Valerie collected and sorted thousands of aquatic organisms from Tottino II in summer. To do this, Valerie collected two samples from random locations within each pond and the Moro Cojo Slough using a dip net swept near the muddy bottom. Effectively catching “free swimming” invertebrates. Then she carefully transferred the invertebrates caught in the net using tweezers and placed them into a bottle full of 70% isopropyl alcohol for preservation. 

Figure 3. The first aquatic vertebrate discovered at Tottino II seen through the microscope. Six individual three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) were discovered in Ponds 1 and 2 in summer 2022.

Valerie and the recruited but less-intrigued interns meticulously counted and identified 4,978 organisms under a dissecting microscope, finding six taxa (Table 1) and with help from Dr. Liz Alter, identified the first vertebrate at Tottino II: a three-spined stickleback (Fig. 3). Valerie found that although invertebrate abundance (i.e. the total count of each taxa) was greater in the summer than during the spring of 2022, overall species diversity using the Shannon Index was lower where H = 1.39 in spring and H = 0.76 in summer, respectively. Click here to view Valerie’s poster.

Figure 4. Swallows nests hidden under a railroad bridge crossing the slough.

Early morning avian surveys set the pace for a field day in the marsh

Vee Rodriguez was a junior at CSUMB studying Environmental Science during their project. Vee was excited to conduct focused surveys on bird populations – they would be the first scientist to undertake this work at Tottino II. Each morning, Vee and the others separated into singles or pairs with a set of binoculars to survey the Moro Cojo Slough and ponds. An exciting observation point was near a nesting ground, under a pacific rail line bridge crossing the Moro Cojo Slough (Fig. 4). Over a ten minute period, each person or team tallied count according to identified bird species or genus. A Peterson’s field guide was especially helpful during this fast-paced survey. During the six observations (completed between 8 AM and 11 AM) our team counted over 1,600 birds and identified 29 different species!

Figure 5. Between late June and late July 2022, bird count and diversity decreased.

Vee observed that as the summer progressed there was a decrease in total bird count and in species observed, or diversity (Fig. 5). The most common birds we encountered were the Brewer’s blackbird at 60.1% (Euphagus cyanocephalus), swallows (Hirundinidae spp.; barn, tree, and cliff) at 18.0%, and a dabbling duck, the gadwall at 7.7% (Mareca/Anas strepera) abundance. Outside of the small window of our surveys as is the humility-garnering side of bird surveys we spotted several interesting species like the glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus). They also found that Pond 4 had the highest average bird count (237 ± 63) while Pond 5 had the lowest (57 ± 47). To see Vee’s poster, click here.

Figure 6. Interns hard at work interpretating vegetation transects. Sonia (left), Vee (middle), Valerie (right).


Permanent transects are installed to track vegetative community evolution through time

Sonia Kortenkamp was a junior at CSUMB studying Environmental Science, Technology & Policy at the time of our study. Sonia was most interested in traditional ecological methods to create robust datasets over time, so she surveyed vegetation along newly installed transects and continued to measured water quality. With the help of her team, Sonia installed and surveyed 18 randomized vegetation transects (Fig. 6) and collected five 50 mL water samples; one water sample from each pond, the Moro Cojo, and a sample from an agricultural ditch draining into Pond 4 (Fig. 1 C).

Figure 7. Vegetation groups based on species identified at 18 vegetation transects.

Sonia ran water samples at Moss Landing Marine Labs on a Lachat Quick-Chem nutrient analyzer for nitrate, nitrite, phosphate, urea, and ammonium. From Sonia’s vegetation transects, she observed 12 different species and found that approximately 62% of all vegetation cover consists of native species while ~16% is non-native, and 1% is moderately invasive (Fig. 7; CAL-IPC 2023). According to the water quality testing, all of the ponds and Moro Cojo Slough tested below EPA drinking water minimums for each chemical. However, location C exceeded the EPA limit for nitrate (41.9 mg/L compared to 10 mg/L EPA standard) by 123% and also had the highest levels of all other chemicals tested. Location C drains into Pond 4 and is considered a point source for agricultural runoff. You can find Sonia’s poster, here.

Sonia (left), Valerie (middle), and Vee (right) stand in front of the College of Science at CSUMB, excited to present at their first research symposium.

Among 68 undergraduate posters, two interns win Outstanding Research Poster

To wrap up their internship at summer’s end, Valerie, Vee, and Sonia cleaned the marsh mud off of their boots to present their work at the 9th annual Summer Research Symposium. The symposium included over 100 students representing 12 different academic disciplines and was the largest research symposium in the region! After crunching the numbers in excel, running R scripts to create stunning figures, and compiling photos, each intern designed a poster to summarize their hard work at Tottino II and presented it to the CSUMB community. Sonia and Vee were two of only five students presented with the “Outstanding Research Poster” award. Congratulations, Vee and Sonia!

Nominees for the Summer Research Symposium Outstanding Research Poster awards. Vee (far right) and Sonia (second from right).

Now that the first Climate Aware summer internship has concluded, our team has many memories to reflect on, road-bumps to learn from (e.g. how to get funding!), and momentum to translate into future mentorship of more diverse scientific leaders. This is what STEM requires, after all. As our team of directors devises a vision for Climate Aware stay tuned as Nicole and Andi create and co-host Badass Women in STEM podcast we are eager to work with our next group of interns. It is our hope that Valerie, Sonia, and Vee have taken more than just a poster away from Climate Aware’s first research focused internship. We certainly have! To read the prospective from an interns point-of-view, find their stories here.

Collaborate with Climate Aware through science, outreach, and equity

If you’re a community leader, educator, or an eager student interested in collaborating with Climate Aware or know a person who might be, contact us! As a young non-profit, we are continually nurturing ideas and projects, finding new ways of making the seemingly intimidating field of science accessible.


Greene AP, Carrazco BA, Cihasky AM, Cuevas-Cardenas ME, Day K, Eichel BM, Ewell J, Funcsh KA, Li V, M’Greené AMA, Melchor K, Rodriguez J, Schaer AN, Wells RD, Wichman GT. In Prep. Environmental baseline conditions of a five-pond restoration wetland during the first year in Moro Cojo Slough, California.

California Invasive Plant Council (CAL-IPC). 2023. Invasive Plants.

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