Growing Momentum for Steelhead Habitat Restoration in Southern California

Pictured: Erik Schmidt with Sandi Jacobson of California Trout at a county road crossing of the Santa Margarita River near Fallbrook

By Erik Schmidt, Sustainable Conservation Senior Conservation Strategist

Trabuco Canyon concrete road crossing in the Santa Ana Mountains upstream of Mission Viejo
Trabuco Canyon concrete road crossing in the Santa Ana Mountains upstream of Mission Viejo

Populations of endangered Southern California steelhead have declined from historic levels of as many as 45,000 returning adult fish to perhaps fewer than 100 today.

A recent springtime tour of Southern California stream habitat restoration sites gave me the chance to look at some of the prime causes of this calamitous drop in fish numbers and reaffirmed my belief that recent legislation – Sustainable Conservation’s 2014 Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Act (AB 2193) – and other Sustainable Conservation initiatives will enable landowners and land managers to take action to return steelhead to native watersheds and boost their populations.

Accompanied by restoration partners from Orange and San Diego counties, I had the opportunity to see first-hand the defunct concrete stream crossings, small dams and other barriers that block steelhead from reaching the cooler riffles and pools and clean gravel they need for spawning and rearing.

Southern California Metrolink crossing of San Juan Creek in San Juan Capistrano
Southern California Metrolink crossing of San Juan Creek in San Juan Capistrano

Throughout the tour, however, I was pleased to learn about the spectrum of plans in the works to remove these obstacles and to improve conditions for steelhead and other aquatic life.

Sustainable Conservation is currently working on three important initiatives that offer a pathway for restoration proponents in Southern California to more efficiently obtain the required permits for such environmentally beneficial projects.

Partners Eager for Work to Be Successful
Key Sustainable Conservation partners, including California Trout, Trout Unlimited, South Coast Habitat Restoration, California State Parks, Cleveland National Forest, NOAA Restoration Center and many others, are eager to have access to simplified regulatory approvals so they can more quickly and cost effectively complete fish passage and habitat restoration projects.

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Despite the availability of an accelerated permitting process, all qualifying restoration work must still meet strict environmental protection measures and other standards.

Southern California Steelhead Need Help
In the field, I visited restoration project sites in Trabuco Canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains near Mission Viejo, on the Santa Margarita River near Oceanside and Fallbrook, and in the San Juan Creek watershed near San Juan Capistrano.

I was impressed with the growing strength of restoration efforts in this area, and the need to more quickly remove the many barriers (there are literally hundreds!) that block and impede steelhead migrating from the ocean to their upstream habitat.

Even these athletic and highly adapted fish cannot jump past the many small dams and crossings placed decades ago in these streams, and hope for their recovery depends in large part on numerous restoration projects moving forward in the coming years – all of which require complex permit approvals.

Sustainable Conservation is working to simplify this process and accelerate these important projects. Interested in learning more? Then checkout our work with accelerating restoration here.