Revisiting the Restored Sisquoc River

Garter snake on Sisquoc River, CA flicks his tongue onthe water to attract small fish | Kerri McClean

Garter snake on Sisquoc River, CA flicks his tongue onthe water to attract small fish | Kerri McClean

On a hike in Los Padres National Forest outside of Santa Barbara, CA, I saw this aquatic garter snake while rock-hopping across Manzana Creek.  Aquatic garter snakes flick their tongues to mimic the presence of an insect on the water’s surface, much like a fly fisherman does, in order to draw small fish within striking distance. This snake didn’t catch anything while I was watching him, but he got me thinking. Fish have plenty to worry about without dams threatening their survival.

I spotted this snake near the confluence of Manzana Creek and the larger Sisquoc River in one of the most important steelhead watersheds in Southern California.  Just a few miles upstream is the confluence with Horse Creek, where American Rivers was partner in the historic removal of Horse Creek Dam.  In 2006, using carefully placed explosives, the dam was removed to reestablish a natural channel and free flowing river. The project opened up19 miles of fantastic habitat to threatened steelhead, an important victory for the struggling species. 

Horse Creek Dam, like so many dams that exist today, no longer served its intended purpose.  Originally built in 1968 to trap debris following a major fire, it was completely filled in with sediment during its first year of operation.  Standing 9 feet high and 60 feet wide, this remote and obsolete dam was injuring steelhead populations without providing any redeeming benefits. 

The Horse Creek Dam removal was funded in part by a partnership between NOAA’s Community-based Restoration Program and American Rivers.  Although it took environmental activists and governmental agencies five years to agree on a plan for the dam’s removal, the physical demolition took only a matter of seconds.  With the dam gone, steelhead swam past the old barrier site and repopulated the upper-stretches of Horse Creek.

Hiking in the Sisquoc drainage, I didn’t see any signs that a major stream barrier had existed here, let alone had been blown up.  On my peaceful hike, I could have been blissfully unaware that a dam had ever existed.  The good news is, it appears the same is true for the fish.

Learn more about what American Rivers is doing to remove outdated, unsafe, and harmful dams.

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