Return of the native
By Bret Bradigan
The Ventura River and its tributaries seem
an unlikely laboratory for an experiment in which many of the
current streams of controversy in Ventura County run together.
Long stretches run dry for at least some of the time in most
years, and most of the time in some years. Despite having been
scoured clean in the devastating flood in 1969, structures, including
homes and outbuildings, have crept back into the flood plain.
Despite the apparent death and unlikelihood of resurrection of
the Petrochem plant, plumes of contaminants continue to seep
into the watershed. A dam that has outlived its usefulness, but
for which no political or financial will has been mustered for
its removal, continues to impede upstream progress and access
to prime spawning beds for the endangered Southern California
An expensive proposal to build a ladder to allow these dwindling
few fish to get past the Robles Diversion, which channels the
water of Ventura River into Lake Casitas, and reach spawning
grounds untouched for a half century, has met with resistance
and bureaucratic delays. If the fish ladder is built, important
questions remain unanswered. Where will the water come from?
And at whose expense?
The final few
No one knows for sure how many steelhead trout still seek to
pass on their genetic legacy amid the braided gravels of the
Ventura River and its tributary creek beds.
Some estimate as few as 50, perhaps none in a dry year.
Jim Edmondson, CalTrout's conservation director, said 50 is only
a guess, too few, even, to justify hiring a crew to probe the
pools with electric prods that stun the fish momentarily, long
enough to take their count. But enough, according to the National
Marine Fisheries Service, to justify spending $4.5 million XXX
to build a fish ladder to allow the endangered species to swim
past the Robles Diversion dam, which channels the waters of Ventura
River into Casitas Lake.
As is most probable, a few schools of steelhead, lured by ancestral
imprinting, by some scent or sensation only found in waters that
drain through Casitas gap, wait patiently offshore of the river's
mouth until the torrents of a storm breach the sandbars and give
them a clear run to their birthplace creeks.
Steelhead are anadromous, or migratory, rainbow trout. They spend
part or most of their life in the ocean, returning to their home
creeks to spawn. The fry spend one to three years in the creeks
before migrating to the ocean for their adult phase. Usually
beginning with the first hard rain of winter, the fish head back
to their native streams to spawn and complete their life cycle.
Steelhead, unlike Pacific salmon such as chinook or coho, do
not die after spawning, and can complete three or four return
According the National Marine Fisheries Service, as many as 5,000
steelhead once surged up the river from the ocean, completing
their spawning cycle amid the trickling brooks of the Matilija
forks, or up through San Antonio Creek perhaps as far as Thacher
School. While the main stem of the river may dry up for long
stretches, streams higher in the drainage - covered by shade
and protected by steep valleys - run year-round unless afflicted
by unusually severe and enduring droughts.
The entire watershed drains 228 square miles of a basin rimmed
by the coastal mountains reaching more than 6,000 feet above
sea level. The longest stream course available would be up the
river to Matilija's main forks, which, together, take up 32 miles,
or about 16 miles each.
The spawning females fan pea- to marble-sized gravel with their
tails to create their spawning beds, or redds. They deposit their
eggs, which are then fertilized by the males' sperm, or milt.
The most desirable spawning areas contain gravels loose enough
to allow water to percolate through them, bathing the eggs in
a rich flow of oxygen.
The way it was
Anecdotal accounts of the great sport these fish once provided
local anglers are not hard to come by. Jim Coultas, Casitas Municipal
Water District board member, remembers hearing his grandparents
talk about limiting out one day in 1916, with the smallest of
the trout measuring 18 inches. The limit at the time was 100
fish per day per person.
The Ventura County Fish and Game Commission prepared a report
for the Board of Supervisors in March 1973, in which they "initiated
an investigation into the nature and scope of pollution in the
Ventura River. Out of this investigation, an interest developed
in protecting the river's existing resources and restoring its
historic trout and steelhead fisheries."
One fisherman, Henke, said the runs of steelhead would begin
right after the first of the fall rains and continue through
April. "These later runs were much larger fish and I can
remember seeing schools where the average was 10 to 13 pounds,"
he said. A 1946 census showed 248 fishermen along the Ventura
River on opening day, with an estimated economic impact of $100,000.
All that changed in 1948 with the construction of Matilija Dam,
which cut off steelhead from prime spawning habitat in the middle
forks of Matilija Creek, and with the construction of Casitas
Dam in 1959, which further blocked the fish from spawning beds
along Coyote Creek. Factor in industrial development along the
river plain below Foster Park and the conditions were set for
dwindling runs of steelhead, along with dwindling opportunity
and interest from fishermen.
A few souls continued to chase those remaining fish, however,
with steelhead catches reported "every year the rains were
sufficient to allow the river to run into the ocean for a week
or more," according to Milo Bugg. Bugg reported taking 12
steelhead measuring 18 inches below the confluence of San Antonio
Creek in the 1960s.
Malibu Creek had been regarded as home to the southernmost active
steelhead population, though Rindge Dam, a mere two miles upstream
from the Pacific, blocks access to nearly all of the prime spawning
grounds. The most recent census, according to Edmondson, put
the number of returning steelhead in that stream at 37.
But in 1997 an enterprising college student in Orange County
hooked a large trout in San Mateo Creek, near Camp Pendleton,
which later proved to be a steelhead. And steelhead historically
ranged as far south as mid-Baja Peninsula, though there is little
data available on Mexican steelhead.
The way it will be
As if present perils weren't enough, a new threat to steelhead
The National Resources Defense Council global warming models,
using emissions scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, predicts a dire future for all fish that depend
on cold water, particularly the Southern California steelhead
that are already at the limit of their range. By the year 2030,
trout and salmon could lose 5 to 17 percent of their habitat,
14 to 34 percent by 2060 and 21 to 42 percent by 2090. "Loss
of habitat in the South, Southwest and Northeast could be particularly
severe, although significant losses are expected through the
current geographic range, with greatest losses expected for California,"
the study concluded.
Generally, trout require water cooler than 68 degrees. While
they can withstand higher temperatures for short periods of time,
the warmer the water, the less oxygen it can carry, and the more
stress the fish endure as a result.
"Southern California steelhead, which have had to adapt
over millennia the Mediterranean climate, are thought to possess
unique abilities to remain healthy in the highest range of water
temperatures for the species throughout its entire range along
the Pacific Coast," said Edmondson.
CalTrout commissioned water temperature studies on Malibu Creek
below Rindge Dam in 1989, during a particularly dry year. During
July and August, mean temperatures between 69.8 and 73.4 degrees
were recorded, and maximum temperatures briefly exceeded 80 degrees.
None of the researchers "observed any adverse effects to
steelhead below Rindge Dam during this warmer period, thus confirming
the high temperature tolerance of Southern California Steelhead,"
according to the report.
As global warming renders present habitat unsuitable in the future,
those temperature-tolerant fish will become even more important,
Edmondson asserts, as broodstock for restoring populations further
north. These southernmost fish, including Ventura River steelhead,
"are the parent genetic materials for all steelhead on the
Pacific Coast," he said, citing Aldo Leopold's edict that
"the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all
Edmondson said, "For that point alone, they are important."
The Ojai Valley News
to the news
RUNS were once a source of great sport for local fishermen, as
evidenced by this photo from 1946.