Earth Island Reports
If You Build It, They Will Come: Bringing Steelhead Back to the Central Coast
South Coast Habitat Restoration
As we enter the 2016-2017 winter season in Southern California, I wonder if this year will be a good one for steelhead trout. I’m not thinking about fishing or barbecuing steelhead, but about whether there will be enough rain for water flow in our local streams and rivers so that the trout have a fighting chance to go upstream and spawn.
Steelhead trout are an anadromous form of rainbow trout native to the Pacific Coast. Like salmon, these fish are born in freshwater streams, migrate to the ocean, and then return to streams in order to complete their lifecycle. Unlike salmon which die after spawning, steelhead are able to repeat this cycle multiple times, though they do not necessarily return to their specific natal streams. Since steelhead are so opportunistic, their chances of recovery are higher if they have some viable habitat to return to. However, like salmon, they too, are finding it increasingly difficult to migrate upstream because of lack of adequate water flow or manmade barriers that prevent passage upstream.
Last year was supposed to be an excellent year for steelhead with the El Niño event projected to bring in heavy rainfall. But El Niño ended up not bringing much rain to Southern California. We typically get about 18 inches of rain, but we got only about 10 inches in 2015. Now, 10 inches may not sound bad, but given that California is in its fifth year of drought, this amount of rain was abysmal for recovery efforts and the survival of the southern steelhead trout. Streams in some areas of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties had running water for only a few days, so they didn’t manage to flow all the way to the ocean, preventing steelhead from migrating upstream to their spawning grounds. In order to spawn successfully, steelhead need cold, oxygen-rich waters. But without successive “wet” winters, streams have begun to warm up and dry faster, making for harsh conditions for the fish.
The southern steelhead trout is an evolutionarily distinct population native to Southern California and northern Mexico, which is adapted to the seasonally dry streams and arid climate that they experience in this region. This regional trout species’ population once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but today, largely due to loss of upstream habitat, it’s at less than 1 percent of these historic numbers. In other words, that are fewer than 500 of these fish left in the wild! The southern steelhead trout has been listed as a federally endangered species in this area since 1997.
South Coast Habitat Restoration, a project that I started in 2007, has been working on identifying and implementing voluntary watershed-related habitat restoration projects in the Santa Barbara and Ventura region of south central California in order to help southern steelhead trout populations rebound.
Most streams in the region have many barriers to migration – from dams to low-flow concrete crossings to grade-control structures and debris basins. We have been working in partnership with private landowners, government grant-making agencies, and engineering teams to remove these barriers. Our work involves not only removing barriers to fish migration but also recreating natural stream beds and vegetation using native plants in order to improve habitat conditions for the fish and other wildlife.
Over the past nine years, we have successfully removed 21 migratory barriers – 20 in Santa Barbara County and one in Ventura County – and have opened up approximately 36 miles of habitat for steelhead. As part of these barrier-removal efforts, we have also built 12 clear span bridges that allow for natural stream flow and provide private landowners safe access over these critical water bodies.
Many of the projects took place on avocado ranches, where we have worked hard to build successful funding and permitting partnerships between farmers and the local authorities who don’t often see eye to eye. Other projects required reaching out and negotiating with private landowners to do restoration through sections of stream on their property. Right now, we are in the process of developing engineering designs for the removal of an additional 14 barriers in the region – 10 in Santa Barbara and four in Ventura. These future projects will open up almost 26 miles of additional habitat for steelhead trout.
One of our most successful restoration efforts has been in the Carpinteria Creek watershed in Santa Barbara County. As part of a community effort which began in 2001 and involved various partners including the City of Carpinteria, the Santa Barbara County Flood Control District, and local landowners, we have removed a total of 12 barriers to steelhead migration from the watershed and installed six clear span bridges. Community volunteers also helped restore and maintain native vegetation at the creek mouth and estuary at Carpinteria State Park, a popular local campground.
Without the partnership and support of the private landowners and agencies, our work would not be possible. Restoration projects, which cost between $400,000 and $800,000, take a lot of time, energy, and patience to cultivate and manage. Over the years, we have built trusting relationships with many landowners and agencies and it’s these partnerships that have allowed us to continue to successfully identify new landowners and grant funding for our work.
One of our biggest financial supporters to date has been the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Currently our projects are also being funded by Patagonia, the County of Santa Barbara, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Another recent and critical source of funding was a settlement between the Santa Barbara Channelkeepers and the County of Santa Barbara for a violation of the Clean Water Act. Because of the settlement, we received funding to support our work in the Atascadero watershed in the city of Goleta in Santa Barbara County. We are thrilled that Channelkeepers approached us and that the county agreed to fund a project which will benefit steelhead trout recovery efforts. I think this shows the trust our partners have in South Coast Habitat Restoration and our reputation for doing good work.
Now, as the first rains of the season have begun pouring down in some parts of Northern California, we are left wondering if we will be similarly, and adequately, blessed or if this will be a La Niña year with lower than average rainfall. As conditions for the survival of southern steelhead trout continue to get worse, we hope our efforts will allow this critically endangered species to have a chance at survival.
Learn more at: schabitatrestoration.org