Searching for Steelhead in San Francisquito
My search for steelhead on San Francisquito Creek yesterday didn’t yield any fish, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Despite a major ongoing drought in California, we were lucky enough to have one significant rain event in Northern California a couple weeks ago. A portion of that rain fell in Palo Alto and its upland areas, briefly supplying San Francisquito Creek with a rush of perennial flows. In this important watershed, winter rains are essential to native steelhead because they provide a crucial opportunity for the fish to migrate up from the San Francisco Bay to spawn.
My friends and I hiked a few miles of the creek, carefully eyeing the creek bottom for fish. Although there were a few pools deep enough to justify the waders I was wearing, about 80% of the creek stretches were bone dry, making my outfit feel ridiculous.
We didn’t spot any steelhead in the few remaining pools, though they may have been hiding out of sight. More importantly, we were relieved that we did not encounter any dead fish in the dry sections. It is not uncommon for San Francisquito’s steelhead, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, to get stranded in shallow pools when water levels drop after a large rain event. If those pools dry up entirely, the fish die.
I hope that any of the steelhead that entered San Francisquito Creek in this latest storm made it high enough into the system that they will have enough water to survive until the next big rain. These fish face many challenges, including those posed by Searsville Dam, the most significant fish passage barrier in the watershed. Searsville Dam, which is owned by Stanford University, stands 65-feet tall and blocks access to approximately 20 miles of habitat above the dam. Stanford’s dam and related water diversions also reduce and sometimes eliminate flows in the creek below the dam, making difficult conditions even harder for the steelhead.
American Rivers is actively working with Stanford to remedy the problems associated with Searsville Dam. As for the California drought in general, I think I will keep putting on my waders and hope that somehow they will bring the rains.