Late last year, federal fisheries biologists released the final South-Central California Steelhead Recovery Plan. Focused on an area from San Luis Obispo to Monterey, the plan will serve as a guide to restore historic steelhead runs in several major watersheds in the northern Los Padres National Forest, including the Carmel River, Salinas River (and tributaries, including Arroyo Seco Creek), the Big Sur River, San Luis Obispo Creek, Arroyo Grande Creek, and several smaller coastal drainages.
Once numbering in the tens of thousands of fish, south-central steelhead populations plummeted in the past several decades. The Recovery Plan is a “blueprint” that describes the measures that must be taken over the next several years to bring the south-central steelhead back from the brink of extinction. The Los Padres National Forest is of high priority when it comes to steelhead recovery efforts because many of the streams providing pristine spawning habitat originate in and flow through the forest.
Los Padres ForestWatch has been involved in the development of the Plan from start to finish, providing the National Marine Fisheries Service with input along the way (along with other steelhead experts, the public, and federal, state, and local agencies). Because of the significant role that ForestWatch has played in promoting the recovery of steelhead throughout the northern Los Padres National Forest, the Plan specifically recognizes ForestWatch as a potential collaborator for 113 different actions aimed at recovering steelhead throughout this region.
Federal biologists released a southern steelhead recovery plan encompassing the southern half of the Los Padres National Forest in 2012. Together, these two plans will serve as a roadmap to restore historic steelhead runs throughout the Los Padres National Forest.
Threats to Our Region’s Steelhead
Coastal watersheds in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties are near the southern limit of the range for anadramous (ocean-going) steelhead in North America. Fisheries biologists estimate that annual average runs have declined dramatically from an estimated 25,000 adults historically, to currently less than 500 returning adults – representing a 98% decline.
The largest threats facing steelhead in the Los Padres National Forest, and southern California as a whole, are impassable barriers such as dams, culverts, and road crossings, all of which prevent steelhead from swimming upstream from the ocean to their historic spawning grounds higher up in the watershed. Water diversions for household, agricultural, and industrial use also leave less water for fish, reducing streamflows and narrowing the window of opportunity for steelhead to complete their life cycle. When streamflows are reduced during drought conditions, these threats are magnified.
Throughout this region, the Los Padres National Forest contains some of the best spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead. Here, the upper reaches of watersheds have generally remained free from development. However, most of this habitat is currently blocked by large dams that lack modern steelhead passage facilities; in fact 90 percent of historic habitat is located above impassable barriers!
The Recovery Plan identifies several critical actions that must be taken to restore south-central steelhead to their historic spawning grounds in the northern Los Padres National Forest. Some of the highest-priority actions include:
- Salinas River – Three dams on the Salinas River and its tributaries block access to prime steelhead habitat in the Los Padres National Forest. The Salinas Dam (1941) impounds Santa Margarita Lake just downstream from the national forest boundary. The San Antonio Dam (1965) and Nacimiento Dam (1961) are earthen dams that block access to two tributaries of the Salinas River in the Los Padres National Forest. The Recovery Plan recommends modifying all three dams to facilitate fish passage, and to adjust the dams’ water release schedule so that steelhead have enough water to migrate upstream and downstream.
- Arroyo Seco River – The Arroyo Seco River originates on the eastern side of the Los Padres National Forest and empties into the Salinas River. The Forest Service has recommended this river for protection under the 1968 Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. The Arroyo Seco is threatened by groundwater pumping, gravel mining, and fish passage impediments like road crossings, all of which are recommended for modification in the Recovery Plan.
- Carmel River – The Carmel River originates in the Los Padres National Forest and flows 36 miles to the Pacific Ocean. The Recovery Plan recommends the removal or modification of three dams that block steelhead access to historic spawning grounds in the forest: San Clemente Dam (1921), the Old Carmel River Dam (1880s), and the Los Padres Dam (1949). A project is already underway to remove two of these dams, and the owner of the third dam is in the early stages of conducting a dam removal feasibility analysis.
- Big Sur Coast – The Recovery Plan identifies three coastal watersheds along the Big Sur coast that are top priorities for steelhead restoration, including San Jose Creek, Little Sur River, and Big Sur River. The Plan recommends removing smaller barriers to fish passage, conserving water to ensure adequate streamflows, and modifying road crossings that may block steelhead access to the upper reaches of the Little Sur River.
- San Luis Obispo Coast – Five watersheds hold the key to restoring healthy steelhead populations in San Luis Obispo County: San Simeon Creek and Santa Rosa Creek in North County, San Luis Obispo Creek (which flows through the City of San Luis Obispo), and Pismo and Arroyo Grande creeks to the south. The Plan recommends removing or modifying barriers to fish passage (including Lopez Dam on the Arroyo Grande River, which prevents access to historic steelhead habitat in the Los Padres National Forest), improving management of groundwater extraction and water diversions, and protecting estuaries where steelhead may seek refuge.
Click here to read about the steelhead recovery priorities for the southern half of the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, including the removal or modification of dams on the Santa Maria River, Santa Ynez River, Matilija Creek, Ventura River, Santa Clara River, and Piru Creek.
Recommendations for Recovery
The Plan recommends modifying all major dams and other impassable barriers to steelhead, and restoring streamflows to account for all stages of steelhead life history. This modification to the timing and quantity of water releases from the dams will strive to mimic pre-dam stream flows and allow for improved connectivity between the ocean and historic spawning grounds.
The Plan also recommends the preparation of numerous studies, plans, and monitoring programs to improve steelhead habitat and to reestablish connectivity to historic spawning grounds. It also suggests that the U.S. Forest Service incorporate additional steelhead protective measures in the management plan for the Los Padres National Forest.
Together, the two recovery plans – the 2012 Southern Steelhead Recovery Plan and the 2013 South-Central Steelhead Recovery Plan – represent an ambitious effort to bring back steelhead to our region’s waterways. The plan will complement ongoing efforts by the U.S. Forest Service to monitor steelhead populations in the Los Padres National Forest, and will guide forest officials in improving their management of all activities that occur on forest lands.
ForestWatch will work with all stakeholders involved to ensure that the Recovery Plan’s priority recommendations are implemented as soon as possible so steelhead can once again return to their historic spawning grounds in the Los Padres National Forest.