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The struggle of the steelhead 

The steelhead may be coming back to SLO creek — are we doing everything we can to protect them?

It’s clear standing on the side of Stenner Creek that Brian Stark has a deep affinity for the fish that hide under the rock that he’s placed and in the dark pools that he’s made. As he points to certain features of this restored section of stream, it becomes obvious that he could talk for days about the low-flow pinch points, baffles, and scouring effects that he’s created to help the steelhead in their struggle. He said protecting the steelhead takes an “if you build it they will come� kind of mentality. For the last 10 years Stark has been busy building it; now he’s waiting for them to come.

click to enlarge SAFE FOR FISH:  In the early ’90s, when SLO upgraded its Prado Road sewer facility, the previous near-constant flow of chlorine and ammonia ended and threatened steelhead began to return and even thrive in the southern portion of the creek. - CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • SAFE FOR FISH: In the early ’90s, when SLO upgraded its Prado Road sewer facility, the previous near-constant flow of chlorine and ammonia ended and threatened steelhead began to return and even thrive in the southern portion of the creek.

#Stark works for The Land Conservancy, which is perhaps the leading stream-restoration group in San Luis Obispo County. They’ve done some 30 projects, ranging from re-vegetation of embankments to all-out demolition of fish passage obstructions. The group is known for bending over backward to work with private landowners, the city, and the county to help restore the local environment. Stark’s passion is undoubtedly steelhead, but in no way does he limit his mitigation projects to streams.

When I first called the Land Conservancy to learn about steelhead restoration, the woman who answered referred to Stark as “Trout Man.�

Steelhead trout have been at the center of a debate in San Luis Obispo for years now. The debate is of course about water and how to manage it, but more specifically it is about the city’s plan to reclaim or “recycle� water from the wastewater treatment plant, which the fish have come to rely on. In the early ’90s, when the city upgraded its sewer facility on Prado Road, lower SLO creek (the approximate 5-mile section of the creek from Prado Road south to Avila Beach) began to show signs of life for the first time in years. The creek had been a near-constant flow of chlorine and ammonia, but with the installment of the new facility, threatened steelhead began to return and even thrive.

Now, with so much water being returned to the creek, city officials have created a plan to reuse it for watering sports fields, golf courses, shopping mall lawns, and other industrial areas. Officials say there is no cause for concern, that there will be enough flow to support the steelhead and water the public places, but still the plan has some wondering why we’re messing with the fragile environment of the fish for the sake of some green golf courses.

The Department of Fish and Game list steelhead as a threatened species in SLO County. In Santa Maria, the fish are listed as endangered. Next summer San Luis Obispo is planning Trout About Downtown, a public art display of five-foot steelhead sculptures crafted by local artists. The project echoes that of Chicago’s Cow Parade and Boston’s Cavalcade of Cod, where the animal closely identified with each city was chosen for the public works project.

Next to Stenner Creek on the Cal Poly campus, Stark points at a whole section of stream The Land Conservancy restored. Before, the stream had been obstructed by a flashboard dam used to water agriculture land, which prevented any fish from passing. There was also an impossible launch required for the fish to be able to swim through a culvert and underneath a road. Stark came in, removed the dam, and built a pool so the fish could achieve enough launch speed for their jump into the culvert and back up to their spawning grounds. And although there might not be any steelhead at this location right now, Stark says, looking on the project with pride, now they’ll be able to come here.

“The water-diversion issue of the day is really about the city’s wasterwater effluent,� he says. “The greatest thing that probably had ever been done for steelhead in our watershed was when the city upgraded their sewer plant and provided tertiary treatment. All of a sudden we didn’t have the ammonia and chlorine going into the river anymore. That probably opened up 4 miles of good trout habitat.�

Steelhead are anadromous fish, which means they’re born in freshwater, migrate to the ocean, and return to the freshwater creeks to spawn. Unlike salmon, though, steelhead don’t necessarily die after spawning. This means in a place like SLO County, where rain tends to come in flashy increments, the fish have to get upstream, spawn, and get out quickly, said Mike Hill, Department of Fish and Game’s district fish biologist for SLO and Monterey counties.

This is what makes clearing obstructions, and fish passage projects, so important. Although SLO does not suffer the same fates as places like Santa Barbara County and Malibu, where now-defunct dams clog huge sections of rivers, creating costly demolition costs and immeasurable environmental damage, there’s a legacy of a lack of respect for the river.

For this reason, the slow demise of the steelhead cannot be attributed to any one certain factor, like the construction of a major dam, said Stark. It was really a combination of things. Small diversion projects and dams used for agricultural lands created barriers for adult steelhead, preventing them from getting to their historical spawning grounds. The creek was also used as a dump for a long time. Restaurants used to have waste chutes that went right into the creek, said Stark. Before the creation of a sewer in San Luis Obispo, the creek was the answer.

Increased sediment deposited in the streams as a result of cattle grazing and erosion also had a negative impact on steelhead.

“Sediment is one of the worst things that can happen in a steelhead stream, or any fisheries stream,� said Hill. Sediment can cover the nest; it can clog the gills of the fish making it harder to breathe. It can smother the eggs, not only of the fish but of the macroinvertebrates (which the fish rely on for food).

For this reason, so much of what Stark does is focused on reducing sediment in the creeks and providing the fish with cool, clear water and clean gravel for spawning. Stark achieves this through various methods. Riparian planting, or streamside re-vegetation, is key. This not only provides shade for the creek, which cools the water, but the dense root systems of the plants also secure the streamside, effectively minimizing erosion. Leaves from these plants also provide food for the macroinvertebrates.

click to enlarge STEWARDS OF THE LAND:  Brian Stark, executive director of The Land Conservancy, estimates that the organization has replanted about 5 miles of riparian buffer strips in SLO County. - CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • STEWARDS OF THE LAND: Brian Stark, executive director of The Land Conservancy, estimates that the organization has replanted about 5 miles of riparian buffer strips in SLO County.

#In order to minimize erosion, Stark also focuses on keeping cattle away from the creek. At one project he showed me, this meant putting a fence along the creek and supplying the landowner’s cattle with various troughs and a 5,000-gallon water tank that is systematically filled by an automatic, solar-powered pump.

Most of the Land Conservancy’s fish passage projects are funded through a settlement with Unocal over the 1992 oil spill in Avila. At the time, the Land Conservancy was mostly doing restoration planning and research.

“It came to where someone had to go out and do the building on these things,� said Stark. “There wasn’t anybody out there who was doing it.�

At first Stark focused on re-vegetation projects, but since then he’s taken on larger restoration projects. Now the Land Conservancy is capable of complete removal and restoration of fish-passage barriers.

These larger-scale projects can involve temporarily diverting the stream while an excavator places rocks and downed trees in specific places. With the help of a laser level, which precisely measures the hydrograph, or slope, of the river, Stark is able to create features that are more conducive to steelhead, like pools and hiding spots.

The Land Conservancy has completed about 30 stream restorations since 1988. Stark estimates that they’ve replanted about 5 miles of riparian (stream-bank) buffer strips in SLO County. Most of the landowners and the general population of SLO are very conscious of the creek and mindful of being good stewards, said Stark.

“We’re working with a great number of private property owners, so the projects really have to make sense for them too. It’s not just about doing a project for trout on somebody’s property; it’s about kind of doing a cooperative project with the landowner that they’ll support.

“The landowners that we’re working with have a goal in mind for their property of just being in good habitat condition. Most of them are well taken care of now, that’s what I like to think,� said Stark.

One of those landowners is Kirt Collins, who has lived in Avila Beach since 1958. Not only is Collins a rancher who owns land along lower SLO Creek, he’s also a fisherman. Collins said he could remember when steelhead thrived in the creek.

“I remember as a kid getting off the bus and me and my buddies would walk over the creek bridge and the fish would be spawning right there,� said Collins. “We would see six or eight in each hole just swirling around there. It was beautiful. These big 24- to 34-inch fish swimming around down there. It was awesome. You could walk along the creeks in the shallow parts and see them splashing through, fighting their way up. It’s very rare to see very many fish like that anymore.�

Collins received mailings from The Land Conservancy
and said he was interested in their work because he wanted to make sure his cattle were not impacting the creek.

“They were great,� he said. “They always listen to your side. They were always more than willing to work with us and help us.�

Large chinook salmon swim in the city’s sewer outfall on lower SLO creek. The salmon have come from a pen-rearing operation in Avila and are a sign of the general improved health of the creek.

“The city was told by the Department of Fish and Game to either clean the creek up or get that water out,� said Neil Havlik, SLO city natural resources manager. The city complied, and pretty soon steelhead were back in the creek. The city is required to chlorinate the water, then de-chlorinate it, and then cool the water before releasing it, said Havlik.

“After two dry years, what becomes the most reliable part of the creek is the part with the discharge,� he said. So naturally the steelhead live there, but Havlik said this is somewhat problematic because the water coming out of the wastewater treatment facility has been supplied from many different parts of SLO, and therefore is “artificially enhanced by human agencies.�

According to Chris Slater, chief operator of the SLO water reclamation facility, the water coming out of the wastewater treatment plant’s outfall is cleaner then the water in upper SLO creek, above the treatment plant.

“Everyone asks, ‘Would you drink it?’ No, I wouldn’t,� he said. When asked if he would swim in it, he said, “Yeah it’s cleaner than most creeks or rivers.�

In August of 2003 the city broke ground on a new facility that will use the clean water from the wastewater treatment plant for watering various industrial and commercial sites. Purple flags around town signify where the pipes have been laid and where this water will be used. According to Katie Disimone, water projects manager, the $13 million project is expected to start pumping reused, or recycled, water by the summer of 2005. Plant builders ran into unexpected problems last winter because of the San Simeon earthquake.

At full build-out, which isn’t expected to be for 10-15 years, the water recycling plant is expected to save 1,200 acre-feet of water a year. One acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons. According to the Marin Municipal Water District, this is about enough water for a year for three families.

“The intent is that it will offset potable water use,� said Disimone.

Currently about 5.1 cubic feet per second (cfs) is being discharged from the wastewater treatment plant’s outflow. After numerous lawsuits, the city agreed to leave a minimum flow of 1.7 cfs for the steelhead. City officials say the steelhead shouldn’t be affected too much by the new draw, though, because the fish normally run between January and April and the recycled water won’t be used until May.

“Yes, there’s not going to be as much water in the creek. And yes, that probably means the habitat is going to be a little more stressful for the fish,� said Havlik. “And in those dry years it will be maybe very stressful. We made the assumption that it was going to be very stressful every year, and that’s what the mitigation is based on.�

According to the City’s 2004 Distribution and Abundance report of steelhead in the SLO watershed, 24 percent of the juvenile steelhead in the SLO watershed live on lower SLO creek, below the wastewater outflow.

To mitigate the situation, the city recently restored a section of Coon Creek near Moñtana de Oro. The project, which is on PG&E property, essentially connects the ocean with a spring-fed section upstream. Trout live upstream, so Havlik said he’s optimistic that the steelhead will find the habitat suitable. But still some wonder if restoring Coon Creek is going to help the steelhead of San Luis Obispo creek.

“I’m not frustrated,� said Stark. “But it’s an acknowledgment of the reality that there are competing uses for water.�

The most recent threat to the steelhead comes from a conservative legal foundation. The Pacific Legal Foundation intends to file suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries over its identification of habitats for 48 endangered species in California. Stark dismissed the suit as nothing new.

“For me the trout have kind of become a personal totem. The struggle of the steelhead is the struggle of our own lives,� Stark said while laughing a little. “The people who are in the business that I associate with, and [who] are in the professional societies, that’s how it is, you know. The steelhead and the salmon are sacred.

“It’s interesting when we get to talk with the trout restoration crews from up in Northern California; they have whole programs to restore the folklore behind the steelhead and the salmon, it’s so rich. And in a way, over time, it didn’t really start with the passion; it became the passion, and that’s what makes me want to go and do more projects.�


Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at




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