Although the once prolific steelhead trout currently faces extinction, the city of Santa Barbara may soon help turn the tide with an allocation of several state and private grants.
Experts claim the Santa Barbara steelhead trout population declined as a result of concrete lining placed in Mission Creek which inadvertently altered the stream’s flow, replacing the calm pools that once served as breeding grounds for the endangered fish with dangerous, fast-moving water. The California Dept. of Transportation added the lining to the creek in 1964 for flood control. Meanwhile, the Santa Barbara City Council has recently and unanimously accepted two grants, totaling $335,000, to restore the trout population.
Working with the Environmental Defense Center, a nonprofit organization, the Council has organized the Mission Creek Recovery Project, which aims to remove the concrete lining from the bottom of portions of the creek in order to restore the endangered fish’s breeding grounds.
According to the council and EDC, the unnaturally high water speeds caused by the concrete bottom makes it difficult for the steelhead trout to migrate to their natural spawning grounds. EDC Executive Director Cameron Benson said the city chose to lay down concrete on the creek bed after flooding in the 1930s and ’60s. However, the increase in water speed did not just prevent overflow.
“They are pretty powerful fish,” Benson said. “They can do a lot, but they can’t swim up a mile of fast-moving water. The steelhead has been reduced by over 99 percent, down to 1 percent of its historic population.”
City Council member Das Williams said the city plans to use grants to create small-scale models of the creek and then test them to determine the viability of the project. One of the biggest challenges, Williams said, is determining the necessary water speed to allow the fish to swim upstream while still preventing seasonal flooding.
“The modeling is really important because we’ve got to figure out how we can restore the creek, at least partially, from a concrete-lined storm drain into a natural creek,” Williams said. “But we’ve got to do the modeling in order to make sure the water moves quick enough downstream to avoid flooding.”
To provide flood control, the city plans to either increase the slope of the banks to or leave some of the concrete on the sides of the creek, Williams said.
He said the process of restoring Mission Creek could potentially take years and may cost between $4 to $5 million by the time it is completed.
At the City Council’s May 8 meeting, council members unanimously accepted two different grants, both of which will fund the initial planning stages of the project. According to Benson, the California Department of Fish and Game provided a grant of $155,000, and another foundation donated almost $200,000 to the EDC for the project.
“Another grant came from the Annenberg Foundation,” Benson said. “That was a grant that came to the EDC and the majority of that funding will be transferred to the city to assist with this project. We are transferring $180,000 from EDC to the city.”
Aside from the fact that the steelhead trout is a threatened species, Benson said the fish serve as an indicator for the general health of the Santa Barbara environment and the quality of the water.
“If we can bring this, it will be an example of improvement to our local environment,” Benson said.
While he said the steelhead trout’s current state was unfortunate, Williams said he hopes to see a restored population within the near future.
“Old timers around here can remember when steelhead passed in such large numbers that it looked like you could walk across the creek, and its sad that there are now only hundreds of breeding adults,” Williams said. “There used to be a fish industry based on the steelhead around here. I hope sometime within my lifetime that they are plentiful enough that we see them and [the fish] can be part of local economy.”