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

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.” ■


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