Two young Latino men clad in thin T-shirts and jeans marched up State Street, hands buried deep in their pockets in search of respite from Monday’s harsh, chilly winds. As they approached Victoria Street, they were startled by the sight of giant fish — six feet long, three feet in diameter, and ornately painted with a fly-fishing fantasy scene straight from the pages of Field & Stream — beached atop a green metal pole jutting seven feet into the air. One of the two men broke into a big grin, pulled a hand from his pocket, and gave the fish a warm, friendly wave. A few blocks away, in front of a State Street boutique baby apparel shop, a middle-aged white couple dressed in matching sweatshirts shielded their eyes from the sun’s glare as they gazed upon another spectacular fish — this one covered in a mosaic of multicolored glass pieces — designed, carved, and assembled to make the stationary fish appear to be swimming. “Wow!” they said in unison. “Look at that.” Further down State Street, a grizzled Mexican cowboy strummed his nylon-stringed guitar outside Macy’s as a man and a woman stopped to take in yet another big fish sculpture — this one painted with a school of fish swarming along its chocolate-red sides. Now, another man sauntered over, wearing an intrigued grin. But their collective meditation on the unexpected fish invasion was abruptly shattered when a woman wearing a cardboard box covered in random magic marker squiggles walked across the intersection, issuing equally random shrieks and shouts as she approached. The box woman’s message was elusive, haunting. Maybe it was fishspeak.
The giant fish statues grabbing the attention of a broad cross-section of Santa Barbara folk are part of a two-month celebration of the endangered steelhead trout which, as recently as 50 years ago, thrived on the South Coast to the point of choking the region’s rivers and creeks. The fish sculptures, eight in all, made their initial appearance on State Street last Saturday, thanks to Mauricio Gomez, director of watershed restoration programs for the Community Environmental Council (CEC). The fishes’ arrival was scheduled to coincide with CEC’s first-ever Santa Barbara Steelhead Festival and 5K run, both of which take place this Sunday at the Santa Barbara Zoo. It was also scheduled to dovetail with a four-day symposium on steelhead restoration efforts (February 22-25) hosted by the Salmonid Restoration Federation. The Steelhead Festival marks a dramatic stylistic departure for CEC, the region’s oldest environmental think-tank known for its sober scholarship and serious policy papers on topics such as recycling and alternative energy. But the CEC has undergone a controlled identity crisis of late, sparked by top-level personnel upheaval and a relocation from its TV Hill headquarters to downtown S.B. CEC’s new leaders have reevaluated the organization’s priorities, its internal structure, and its relations with the broader Santa Barbara community. Out of all that, somehow a festival was born. Gomez confessed he borrowed the idea for the steelhead sculptures from Bob Thiel, his predecessor at CEC. Thiel, said Gomez, often raised the question as to why public art was never used to enliven Santa Barbara’s ongoing discussion about reclaiming its urban streams and saving the endangered steelhead. Until now, that debate has been dominated by a determined cadre of “creek geeks,” who have spent the past 15 years waging technocratic warfare with water agency bureaucrats in terms incomprehensible to all but those immediately involved. Thiel noted that in cities like Seattle, Vancouver, and San Francisco, public art and street festivals have been successfully deployed to reach out beyond the predictable core constituencies. A longtime transplant from the San Fernando Valley, Gomez recalls playing in the channelized Los Angeles River, where he and his friends climbed over an industrial jungle gym of pipes along the river’s cement banks. Eventually, Gomez came to understand those pipes were part of a broader infrastructure that contributed to that river’s biological demise. Gomez moved to Santa Barbara 11 years ago to attend UCSB, where he earned a degree in aquatic biology; two years ago, he began working for CEC, promoting such notable watershed restoration projects as the one now taking place along Carpinteria Creek. His job has always involved community outreach and education, Gomez said, but he hoped this festival would take things up a notch. “We’re hoping to get the message out on a much wider scale than before,” said Gomez. “I’d like people to see the statues, read the plaques underneath, and then say, ‘What can I do?’”
Running with the Fish Steelhead are complex and mysterious fish, defined as much by their life cycle as by genetic markers. Born in freshwater rivers and streams, steelhead migrate as young adults downstream to the saltwater environment of the Pacific Ocean. After that, no one can say exactly where they go, though a few steelhead have been tagged as far away as South Korea and Japan. This epic wanderlust is what distinguishes the steelhead from their genetically identical but physically inferior cousin, the rainbow trout. Steelhead are larger and darker than rainbow trout; they also have a more pronounced lower jaw. And the steelhead seek to return to their streams of origin to spawn. Usually, this return is timed to the advent of winter rains. Often the violent flush of such storms is necessary to breach the sandbars and accumulated debris blocking their upstream entry. Their arduous journey upstream remains one of nature’s quiet miracles. Unlike the salmon, which spawn just once and then die, the steelhead can spawn as many as five times in a lifetime. But to do so, they need clean cool water, sediment-free gravel, and enough trees to create a canopy. Historically, steelhead trout have colonized rivers from Siberia to Baja California. Some scientists believe steelhead may have originated during the last ice age, protected from the lethal cold somewhere in Baja California. Genetically, the steelhead of Southern California — from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border — are the most ancient and most diverse. And according to their champions, they are also the most capable of withstanding the greatest temperature extremes. “These are the species that can survive in waters over 70 degrees,” said Ed Henke, a social historian of Santa Barbara and Ventura county steelhead fisheries and former defensive standout for the San Francisco 49ers during the 1950s. “In Baja, there were fish that survived in water 80 degrees. If we’re worried about the effects of global warming, this ability is invaluable. This species needs to be protected.” While experts might disagree over the numbers, there’s no dispute that the southern steelhead have been all but wiped out since the 1940s. Natasha Lohmus of California’s Fish and Game Department reported that during the past six decades, 97 percent of the steelhead’s spawning grounds were lost to development or are otherwise inaccessible; Lohmus estimated as few as 500 adult steelhead still swim the waters between Monterey, California and Mexico. Bleak numbers, considering a 1940s survey showed the Ventura River once boasted a run of 8,000 adult steelhead, and the Santa Clara 9,000. But the Santa Ynez River was California’s steelhead mother lode, with as many as 20,000 adults reported in a good year. And Henke noted that because there were already two dams on the river when that survey was taken, a more accurate number of the Santa Ynez’s bounty under “pristine conditions” was 50,000. Regardless of the numbers, Henke and other old-timers remember when public schools acknowledged the beginning of fishing season as an excused absence. They tell stories of fishermen who caught steelhead by flinging pitchforks into the river, a practice known as “Portuguese fly fishing.” But with the development and expansion of agriculture, cities, and suburbs came the construction of dams and other diversions that prevented steelhead from reaching their historic spawning grounds. On the Santa Ynez, such grounds lie north of Buellton. But the fish’s passage to these grounds was forever blocked in 1950 by the construction of Bradbury Dam, which stands 279 feet high. Craig Fusaro, a steelhead advocate long active with CalTrout — a statewide conservation group — has been pushing the Bureau of Reclamation, which built and owns the dam, to study the feasibility of creating some form of fish passage to connect the steelhead with their old spawning beds. Fusaro said it now appears such a study might actually be conducted despite resolute opposition from water-agency managers who’ve long contended such an idea, in practice, would cost too much money, too much water, or both. Fusaro acknowledges their concerns, but insisted they have it backwards. “Bradbury Dam has generated more than $1 billion in commerce,” he said. “How much money have we, as a community, gotten by putting this species at risk?”
Heavy Metal Mission While water-agency managers have historically opposed the idea of accommodating steelhead passage by either installing fish ladders or sponsoring trucking-and-trapping, they have spent considerable time, effort, money, and water on watering the lower stretches of the Santa Ynez River in hopes of creating an acceptable — if less than ideal — habitat for fish breeding. And just last year, dam operators — with the unanimous consent of various water agencies — increased the storage capacity of Bradbury Dam by 9,000 acre-feet; the extra water would be released downstream to give the fish some breeding room. That’s a lot of water; the City of Santa Barbara, by comparison, uses roughly 14,000 acre-feet of water per year. Increasingly, steelhead advocates have focused their efforts on restoring the South Coast’s many smaller creeks and streams as a strategy for saving the fish. “The only thing keeping the species alive are the creeks,” said Henke. “They’ve dammed the rivers into submission, but some of the creeks are still pretty healthy. They’re short, they’re fast, and they’ve got good perennial flows for spawning.” But in many cases, there are obstacles blocking the creeks as well. In downtown Santa Barbara, steelhead advocate David Pritchett, of the Salmonid Restoration Federation, announced that a recent engineering study paid for by News-Press owner Wendy McCaw concluded it was technically feasible to remove two stretches of concrete culvert — measuring about a mile — from Mission Creek between Carrillo and Arrellaga streets, without compromising the flood control protection the culverts offered. Pritchett is one of many creek enthusiasts to document the presence of steelhead in Mission Creek during wet years. Since 2000, several steelhead pairs have been seen spawning or attempting to fashion spawning beds. But the presence of the concrete culverts, built in 1961, constitute the most serious impediment to steelhead migration on Mission Creek. Because the culverts are flat and wide, the water rushing down during winter storms is too fast and furious for the steelhead. “To get past the culverts, a steelhead would need a burst of speed it could sustain for three hours,” Pritchett said. “That’s impossible.” But digging out the culvert’s bottom and relining it with concrete-embedded rocks and boulders of various shapes and sizes, Pritchett explained, would at least give the steelhead a fighting chance. “They can go for five-second bursts, then they need to rest, regroup, and go again. If we provide them with micro pockets of slow water — they can zig and zag from boulder to boulder, from rock to rock, and make it through.” Pritchett said he met with city engineers, planners, and Councilmember Brian Barnwell on February 3. None expressed any doubts about the soundness of the engineering analysis; the problem was money. The estimated price tag was between $5 and $10 million — steep but not insurmountable, said Pritchett. Pritchett said that more refined engineering models, replicating the exact dimensions of the Mission Creek, were needed to determine if the creek will actually behave as predicted. That alone, he said, would cost about $200,000. He’s hoping the City Council can be persuaded to support such an expenditure. “Even if you don’t care about fish, that stretch of creek would look better as a blue and green belt than it does now,” he said. And there’s less risk of bacteria buildup, he said, with the engineered culvert replacement than with the culverts themselves. “We’ve fixed up our sidewalks, our harbor, our waterfront park, and our skateboard park,” he said. “The time has come for Mission Creek to be considered a community asset.”
Big Fish Some five years ago, a day laborer working for a Carpinteria nursery had the unfortunate good luck of spotting a giant steelhead stranded in an isolated pool on Carpinteria Creek. Figuring it for a feast, he smacked the fish with a two-by-four, loaded the 37-inch, 7-pound carcass into his wheelbarrow, and headed for home. Stopped by police along the way, the man was warned and issued a ticket. Later, he was more severely fined for violating the nation’s Endangered Species Act. To make matters worse, the fish was a gravid — or pregnant — female, bursting with eggs. The incident galvanized Fish and Game’s Lohmus into action. She approached members of the Carpinteria Creeks Committee. She reached out to representatives from the entire alphabet soup of state, federal, and local regulatory agencies. And critically, Lohmus had the good sense to listen when it was suggested she invite property owners and ranch managers with operations abutting the banks of Carpinteria Creek. As a result of this outreach, the Carpinteria Creek Watershed Coalition — which evolved out of Lohmus’s instigations — is hailed as one of the most collaborative and least confrontational grassroots watershed restoration efforts in the county. And they’re not just making nice; they’re getting stuff done. According to CEC’s Mo Gomez, who has emerged as the fundraising point man for the committee, the group has raised $1.8 million to remove two of the obstacles — concrete pads used to help trucks and cars cross during winter storms — blocking fish passage up Carpinteria Creek. In their place, he said, will be built two span bridges. Part of the group’s optimism stems from the good condition of the creek itself. Back in the 1970s, the Carpinteria City Council — led by Ernie Wullbrandt — vehemently rejected the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposal to convert the creek into a concrete-lined storm channel. As such, it’s the community’s only natural-bottomed creek. “It became the Eighth Natural Wonder of Carpinteria,” joked Matt Roberts, Carpinteria’s Parks Director and an avocado rancher. And somehow, the Carpinteria Creek managed to elude the best efforts of railroad and freeway engineers to construct engineering impediments to fish passage. Because of this — and its relatively pristine backcountry — a 2002 inventory of Santa Barbara’s creeks and tributaries identified Carpinteria Creek as the county’s single best candidate for a successful restoration effort. Still, ranchers and property owners elsewhere in the county have recoiled in horror at the prospect of increasing their regulatory exposure by participating in something involving an endangered species. In Carpinteria, large property owners like Cate School and Patti and Terry Bliss have been actively involved in the committee, as have ranch managers like Carl Stucky, who represents two family enterprises, which combined have been in business 235 years. “They made it clear they wanted to meet the landowners’ needs,” said Stucky. “They didn’t come in from the outside and tell us this is the way it has to be done.” Lohmus, a former warden who used to carry a badge and gun, commented, “I had to convince some people this was not just an excuse to find out what they were doing wrong.” Nor did it hurt, Lohmus added, that money was available. “That tends to get people’s ears to perk up,” she noted. Although the southern steelhead is the most at risk, it has traditionally lagged in funding for restoration efforts. Lohmus said the governmental and nonprofit organizations making such grants are slowly recognizing this imbalance and taking steps to rectify it. After the two bridges are built, the steelhead should be able to shoot up Carpinteria Creek across Highway 192 and up to the county Flood Control debris basin in Gobernador Canyon. But even that should not remain an obstacle for long, as county flood control has already committed to engineering a passageway for the fish. After that, Lohmus and Gomez are hoping they can make lightning strike again, this time on Rincon Creek, which according to Henke once sported some spectacular fish runs. In the long run, can even such Herculean persistence by fish advocates assure the steelhead’s return? “Will we ever have wall-to-wall fish again?” Lohmus mused. “I doubt it. But can we have self-sustaining populations? I think so.” In the meantime, Lohmus, Fusaro, Pritchett — and a host of other fish advocates — are confident their efforts to bring back the steelhead will have wide-ranging benefits. “The steelhead is an umbrella fish,” said Lohmus. “If we can make the conditions right for the steelhead, we’re making them right for the red-legged frog and other creatures that depend on a healthy watershed. People just happen to care most about the steelhead.” But artist Scott Chatenever, contemplating the thought behind his six-foot steelhead sculpture, took another tack. “I’m not talking about saving the steelhead,” he said. “I’m talking about saving the humans.” ■