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Up A Creek
updated: Sep 07, 2013, 3:00 PM
By Erin Lennon
Clutching a clipboard while perching precariously on the edge of cement dam rising out of a shallow
creek, Brian Trautwein concentrates on the still, algae-covered water below. On this bright, hot August
afternoon, the Environmental Defense Center's watershed program coordinator is taking inventory of
trouble spots and hazards in area streams around Santa Barbara County.
Gone fishing: A steelhead trout swims upstream. (Julie Thompson)
Trautwein jumps from rock to rock, crossing the creek bed, keeping an eye out for hard-to-spot threats
to the waterway's health, such as the invasive and prolific evening primrose and poison oak on the
opposite bank, or cape ivy, all of which can suffocate or displace trees whose shade oxygenates and
leaves nourish the waterways. Our exact location is a bit of a secret because there's also a very small
chance we'll spot an indigenous but rare treasure in the local watershed-a Southern California
Against great odds, including a dauntingly high mortality rate, drought and cement barriers, like the
channelized creek bottoms with small dams meant to slow erosion (fish can't get over them when the
water is low), a pair of steelhead journeyed up from the Pacific Ocean and into Santa Barbara County's
creeks in mid-March. This is the only pair that Trautwein knows of on the South Coast. Trautwein
believes only one of the pair is left in local waterways-the other having made it back to the ocean when
heavy rains over Easter weekend swelled local creeks.
Southern California steelhead trout were placed on the federal endangered species list in 1997,
triggering efforts to save the local steelhead. These days, seeing a steelhead trout in the more than
1,052 square miles of Santa Barbara County waterways would be like catching lightning in a bottle. Help
for the endangered steelhead may be on the way, as Trautwein and other environmentalists keep their
eyes on key state and federal decisions that will impact local steelhead runs.
It was a much different scenario in the not-so-distant past. In the early 20th century, more than 25,000
steelhead annually traveled the Santa Ynez River, which drains much of the southern county, from the
Pacific to spawning grounds upstream of what is now Lake Cachuma. This was the largest steelhead run
in Southern California, on the largest river on the Central Coast. Trautwein says the steelhead ran so
thick, anglers would lob pitchforks from pickup trucks and spear one of the slick, silvery fishes, which
can grow up to a meter long and look like rainbow trout on steroids.
The Santa Ynez River run as well as smaller runs on other area streams started to dwindle as Santa
Barbara County's population more than doubled between 1900 and 1920. Still, the city recorded
between 13,000 and 25,000 steelhead making their way through the river in 1944. The population
plummeted precipitously 10 years later, when the Bradbury Dam went up, creating Cachuma Lake to
slake the growing county's thirst. The dam gulped water from the river and trapped scores of steelhead
shy of their nutrient-rich, upstream breeding grounds. Today the dam releases a few cubic feet of water
per second into the rivers and creeks below.
"There's less water in Southern California and more barriers to their migration," says Trautwein,
standing in the cemented section of Mission Creek and speaking over the din of the 101 Freeway
running parallel to the creek. "Once there were about 50,000 fish from Santa Maria down to Baja, and
now there are less than 500 adult steelhead trout."
Trautwein inspects a check dam on a dry section of a Santa Barbara County creek, another barrier on the steelhead highway. (Erin Lennon)
Then, CalTrans paved this one-third-mile of the Mission Creek in 1934, when the 101 Freeway
encroached and planners feared a flooding roadway. Then CalTrans paved another stretch in 1961 that
crosses under Carrillo Street, about a quarter-mile downstream, putting another hurdle between the
steelhead and their upstream breeding grounds.
The City of Santa Barbara has since spent just over $1.5 million, mostly covered by California Fish and
Wildlife grants, to remodel Mission Creek and build tiny water-flow-regulating dams called weirs. The
weirs help pool water upstream during low creek flows but also enable fish to work their way through
channelized areas of Mission Creek toward good spawning grounds in a natural habitat further
These cement channels present another challenge to steelhead struggling to navigate upstream. During
heavy rains, torrents of water can shoot through the channels at more than 13 miles an hour. So, the
city is also hollowing out sections in the sidewalls of the channel to create eddies every 40 to 50 feet-
rest stops along the spawning highway, if you will. An even longer downstream section of Mission Creek
is now undergoing the same transformation, with a price tag of nearly $4.2 million.
But Steelhead runs remain tiny to nonexistent year after year despite these efforts, costs and the strong
regulations protecting endangered species.
Read the complete story at MissionAndState.org
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