A young steelhead trout
Paul Wellman (file)

Cold Springs Creek presents a great opportunity to do something for the steelhead. Ever since the City of Santa Barbara drilled its water tunnel in 1900, it has substantially affected the flows in the creek. A debris dam was built on the creek after the 1964 Coyote fire, and because of the debris dam and the effect of the tunnel, the creek is on the brink of losing its trout population. There are good stretches of spawning and rearing habitat in the creek both above and below the debris dam, which is just about a half mile below the Mountain Drive crossing. Unfortunately, upstream spawning fish can no longer reach the stretches above the debris dam, but the flows in the East Fork have been able to nurture a survivable population above the dam, until lately.

Over the past seven years we have experienced two three-year periods with exceedingly dry springs, so much so that the creek has dried up almost completely. In one very large pool in the backyard of a homeowner down low on the Creek drainage, a substantial number of trout gather as a last resort. Through the efforts of this landowner, substantial numbers of these stranded trout have been saved through these very dry periods. This past season has been by far the driest, but significant numbers of trout are being kept alive in this pool, some as large as 20-24 inches in length, with tap water from the homeowner’s domestic supply at significant cost. It is strongly believed that the waters diverted from the city’s tunnel, if allowed to run into the creek, would be sufficient to allow the trout to survive these dry spells in pools up and down the creek, even above the debris dam and without the need for any additions from domestic supplies. If this can be achieved it would be the first and most significant step in restoring steelhead in their native habitat.

Because the city no longer has need for any share of the water, it is possible with the cooperation of the city to release a substantial fraction of tunnel water to the stream. To do so would have no impact on the city’s water resources whatsoever, and it can be done at virtually no cost. A request was made of the City Water Commission to do so, which it referred to the city’s Water Department within the Public Works Department. It has been almost nine months, and the city Water Department has given no indication of any movement on this request.

The amount of water that could be made available is quite substantial based on the detailed measurements made for the first three years after the completion of the tunnel around 1900. According to measurements made by Mr. Lippincott at that time, approximately two-thirds to three-fourths of the tunnel water could be released. That is the fraction not allocated to private rights holders. The tunnel flow is substantially more stable than the surface runoff, and the absolute amounts according to Lippincott range from a low of just under 300 acre-feet a year to perhaps 400 acre-feet in a good year. Releasing this much water into the creek would significantly change the character of the creek’s flow, probably retuning it to a condition not seen in over 100 years. It is remarkable that after over 100 years of being deprived of these flows that there still are steelhead in Cold Springs Creek.

The Department of Fish and Game is working to eliminate the barriers to fish migration. A few years ago they completed a steelhead-friendly debris dam very low on the watershed, and they have plans to eliminate the upstream debris dam as a barrier. In the meantime the stream is still struggling to keep surviving trout populations during low water years. The city can do its part now to assure that the trout will be there when the final barriers are eliminated. The creek will then have the possibility of returning to a healthy fishery it hasn’t seen in over 100 years. It is time for the city to act.


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