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Making Steelhead Welcome to Creek

Wildlife: The U.S. Park Service will tear down barriers keeping the endangered fish out of stream in Santa Monicas.


After nearly five years of desperate searching and scraping for money--the usual routine for Malibu real estate--wildlife officials believe they've found a new home for the beleaguered southern steelhead trout.

But like a lot of property acquisitions, it involves a tear-down.

This week, the National Park Service will begin demolishing one of several small barriers blocking the wily salmon-like fish from swimming up tiny Solstice Creek into the Santa Monica Mountains.

It's the first time the shovel will hit dirt to save the endangered fish in Los Angeles County, where thousands of steelhead once traveled from the mountains to the sea and back again in the area's streams and rivers.

There are at least 15 unique populations of steelhead along the West Coast, 11 of which have suffered serious declines in recent decades.

The southern steelhead is the worst off--one expert describes the fish's predicament as "grim"--and current estimates are that there are only a few hundred remaining between the Santa Maria River in Santa Barbara County and San Mateo Creek in northern San Diego County.

"We know that Solstice Creek by itself isn't going to recover steelhead," said Ray Sauvajot, a resource specialist with the National Park Service. "But this is the kind of project that can serve as a model for similar efforts across Southern California."

Park Service officials said the creek still has all the key ingredients the fish need. There's cool, clean, year-round water in the shady creek, besides plenty of insects for food. And nearly all of Solstice Canyon is protected from development by the surrounding Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The only thing missing: steelhead.

Southern steelhead are rainbow trout, with a twist. Hatched in coastal streams, steelhead migrate to sea as adults and then, after one to four years, return to freshwater streams to spawn and die--although a few hardy fish manage a second round-trip. Historically, some adults caught in the region have reached lengths of 2 1/2 feet.

The problem with Solstice Creek is that steelhead can't reach it because of a series of obstacles, including two culverts, two small dams and a "concrete apron"--a road that plows through the stream rather than over it.

The Park Service is replacing the apron with a bridge and removing parts of the old dams. Between the park boundary and the ocean, Caltrans plans to renovate a culvert under Pacific Coast Highway to make it more fish friendly and to fix a culvert beneath Corral Canyon Road.

The project will cost about $1.5 million and officials hope that it will be completed by December 2003. The popular Solstice Creek trailhead will remain open to hikers, but no parking will be available during construction, which is expected to last the rest of this year.

Solstice Canyon also will get a few more parking spaces, new restrooms and an amphitheater for nature programs.

"This is a very, very important project politically," said Jim Edmondson of the Southern California Steelhead Recovery Coalition. "Once the project is done, you have a great place where the public can have a picnic and, hopefully, see steelhead. There has to be a place like Solstice Creek, to be a poster child for the fish."

Solstice Creek is only 5 to 10 feet wide and, at best, offers only about a mile of habitat for the fish--enough room for maybe 300 steelhead. But the project has been free of the red tape, controversy and funding problems that have slowed other efforts to restore steelhead runs on larger streams.

Those include the removal of two huge, silted-up dams, including one on Malibu Creek and the other on Matilija Creek near Ojai. Taking down either structure--Matilija Dam is the most likely to fall--would open profoundly more habitat than is available at Solstice. But each of those projects would take years.

With the large projects moving at a snail's pace, there is a growing emphasis on performing a sort of triage on smaller streams that are home to steelhead. One recent study found that in 25 watersheds in southern Santa Barbara County, at least 400 barriers hindered or blocked steelhead from migrating up creeks.

"These smaller streams offer a lot of hope because a lot of those barriers are easy fixes," said Matt Stoecker, an ecologist working with the Conception Coast Project in Santa Barbara. "If we can get steelhead back in the small streams, that can be a seed population to later repopulate the major rivers."

In the last year, a road crossing has been repaired to allow fish passage up Salsipuedes Creek near Lompoc. An upcoming project will fix nine bad road crossings on Quiota Creek outside Solvang.

The California Department of Fish and Game also recently moved two biologists to Los Alamitos, where they will work exclusively on southern steelhead issues.

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