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MARCH 2022
Big Southern California Steelhead from nearby Arroyo Hondo Creek, 2017
Photo courtesy of Sally Isaacson
Caltrans’ Project to Remove Steelhead Barriers

Major Milestone in Watershed Restoration
Caltrans District 5 has issued a Project Initiation Document (PID) for a project that will ultimately remove 14 fish passage barriers on Gaviota Creek. Once completed, this would leave only a couple of fish passage barriers in the whole watershed. Populations of Southern California Steelhead have been declining in Gaviota Creek and elsewhere, even though the fish was listed as an endangered species in 1997.
The Caltrans project is designed to be completed in 3 phases but only a portion of the first phase has been funded and programmed into Caltrans’ schedule. This portion of Phase One will remove the lowest two barriers in the watershed and reconstruct the adjacent foundations for Highway 101. This first project element is programmed for construction in 2028-29 and is the only element that currently has funding. Additional phases may be completed by non-profits utilizing grant money and these projects will have the advantage of an environmental review that Caltrans will perform to cover all 3 phases.
According to Meg Henry, Caltrans Project Manager, “We are very early in the development process for this project. Studies are about to start and engineering design is very preliminary at this stage.”
Coastal Ranches Conservancy welcomes Caltrans’ efforts but we recognize there is much more work to be done before the steelhead population in Gaviota Creek can return to its former size. We look forward to working with Caltrans to help find the funding to allow the speedy completion of this project.
Typical Fish Passage Barrier in Gaviota Creek
The Chumash and Gaviota Creek

One of the Gaviota Coast’s largest Chumash villages was located at the mouth of Gaviota Creek. Known as ‘Onomyo, it reportedly had more than 50 dwellings and seven tomols, or sea-going canoes. The Chumash refer to the fish we call steelhead as “Isha’kowoch” or literally “the glistening salmon”. The Chumash have a strong interest in the recovery of the Isha’kowoch in Gaviota Creek, a fish that for more than 10,000 years played a major role in sustaining a healthy watershed; a watershed that physically and spiritually supported Chumash communities.
.Even in Drought Steelhead Still Spawn in Gaviota Creek
Our terrible drought continues but the steelhead in Gaviota Creek are spawning anyway. Kyle Evans of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that his survey team found nine steelhead “redds” or nests in Gaviota Creek during their annual survey in early March, 2022. “Most of the redds are not large enough to necessarily be from sea-run fish, although they could be,” said Kyle. This is the second year in a row that steelhead redds have been seen in Gaviota Creek.
Gaviota Creek benefits from higher rainfall on nearby Gaviota Peak, which catches moisture from storms that blow in off the Pacific. Average rainfall on Gaviota Peak is 40-50 inches per year, roughly three times the amount of rain that falls at the base of the peak. This rainwater percolates into the rock and soil to emerge further down the mountain as cool, spring water.
This means that Gaviota Creek is uniquely climate resilient, able to provide high quality habitat for steelhead and other wildlife that depend on water flow in the creek, even as our climate changes.
Steelhead redd or nest. Eggs are laid in the gravel and hatch after about a month.
Why the Gaviota Creek Watershed is Important
With 32 miles of potential habitat, Gaviota Creek is a great opportunity for restoration of the Southern California Steelhead.
  • At 12,900 acres, the Gaviota Creek watershed is the largest on the Gaviota Coast. More than 70% of it is protected from future development by public land ownership and private conservation easements.
  • Neighboring property owners and the local community support restoration of the watershed.
  • Cool, spring-fed pools in the headwaters of the watershed are a safe place for steelhead to spend the summer.
  • A sizable estuary in Gaviota State Park frequently opens to the ocean, allowing fish to move back and forth from fresh water to salt.
  • Healthy streambeds with good spawning gravels provide ideal conditions for steelhead to lay their eggs.
  • Gaviota Creek steelhead are often isolated by the man-made barriers and trapped in pools during the dry season, resulting in their deaths, unless discovered and rescued by CDFW. These deaths prevent recovery of the steelhead population.
 The Gaviota Creek Estuary is in Gaviota State Park
Gaviota Creek Offers Best Value for Limited Restoration Dollars
Removal of dams that block steelhead, like Matilija Dam in the Ventura River watershed, or Rindge Dam on Malibu Creek, is not only expensive and often controversial, but enormously complicated and takes many years to achieve. These dams must come out eventually, but we can restore nearly as much steelhead habitat in Gaviota Creek as both these projects combined, more quickly and for much less money.
Restoration Project  Projected Cost Estimated Time to Complete Miles of Habitat Restored Cost per Mile
Matilija Dam Removal- Ventura River Watershed $135 million 15 years 17 miles of new habitat $8 million per mile
Rindge Dam Removal- Malibu Creek $200 million 15 years 18 miles of new habitat $11 million per mile
Gaviota Creek Barrier Removal $32 million* 5-7 years 32 miles of new habitat $1 million per mile
*Does not include $12 million already allocated to a portion of this project.
Gaviota Creek Steelhead Rescue
In August of 2018, Caltrans and CDFW relocated five steelhead from a rapidly drying pool in Gaviota Creek to one that has year-round water. The fish were trapped below a concrete box culvert that is a total barrier. Causing the death of an endangered species, even incidentally, is illegal under the Federal Endangered Species Act. California’s Fish and Game Code also prohibits the blockage of streams that have anadromous, sea-going fish species in them. State agencies are not immune from these statutes.
The California Fish and Game Commission is currently considering whether to list the Southern California Steelhead under the state’s endangered species act. This listing would provide additional legal support to require the removal of fish passage barriers such as those found on Gaviota Creek.
Highway 101 Impacts on Gaviota Creek Steelhead
Began in the 1950s
In the early 1950s, Highway 101 on the Gaviota Coast was widened from 2 lanes to 4. Figuring out how to put this wider highway into the narrow gorge of Gaviota Pass was an engineering feat that resulted in construction of the Gaviota Tunnel and the relocation of Gaviota Creek in several locations. By eliminating the natural meanders of the creek, the new highway plan meant the creek would have a shorter length and thus be susceptible to “down-cutting” or erosion of the stream bed. This potential for erosion caused the engineers to call for the construction of 13 “grade control structures” or small check dams intended to control this erosion. These check dams are primarily responsible for the devastation of the steelhead population in Gaviota Creek.
This map of an early widening project, from an old Lompoc newspaper article, shows the many places where the creek channel was shortened by Caltrans.

How You Can Help

We are currently making a big push to get additional funding and accelerate the pace of the Gaviota Creek steelhead recovery projects. Grants to do the planning and construction work are very competitive. That's where you come in! Your donations can help us provide the matching money for these project grants, so please give generously.
Coastal Ranches Conservancy is in its 19th year of supporting nature conservation, restoration, and education along the Gaviota Coast. We depend on your financial contributions to continue our work. Follow us on Facebook and please consider supporting our work with a donation, either on our website with PayPal or by sending a check to us at:

68 Hollister Ranch Rd., Gaviota, CA 93117 – Phone (805) 567-5957
A California Non-Profit 501(c)(3) Organization Federal Tax ID 68-0554135
Copyright © 2022 Coastal Ranches Conservancy, All rights reserved.


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