Trout upstream in San Pablo Creek for first time in 20 years
By Lou Fancher
It’s not often that too much of a bad thing results in something good, but that’s exactly what happened in San Pablo Creek.
In August 2015, a combination of rainwater, root wads, vegetation, gravel and other debris overwhelmed a sluice gate in East Bay Municipal Utility District’s 12-foot high concrete dam in San Pablo Creek near the Bear Creek Road crossing.
The “drop structure” dam was constructed in the 1960s to slow and keep clean the water flowing into the San Pablo Reservoir. Members of Friends of Orinda Creeks, an all-volunteer grassroots organization founded in 1994, have been advocating for more than a decade for EBMUD to clear the often-clogged opening known as “SP201.”
A little more than one year after Mother Nature caused the opening to burst, the first evidence that free passage provided to fish that years ago swam upstream to spawn has Creeks board member Brian Waters celebrating.
“Over 100 rainbow trout, 10 to 14 inches long, have been seen near the Orinda Filter Plant,” said Waters. The 46-year Orinda resident is a retired certified fisheries scientist whose specialties include, among others, the correlation between stream flows and fish habitats.
“This is the first time in more than 20 years that any trout have been seen upstream of the dam,” he said. “We’ve been trying to convince East Bay MUD to provide fish passage for years. Our real interest is not just the fish, but everything from river otters to crayfish that are trying to move upstream.”
On Oct. 27, an official of EBMUD sent an email to Friends of Orinda Creeks with a picture of one of the trout.
“They suspect these are fish from a fish planting program they did in the fall for a fish derby in San Pablo Reservoir,” said Waters.
In the late 1800s, people would fish for salmon and steelhead or rainbow trout in the creek that runs through the city’s downtown. Friends’ efforts to preserve and protect the area’s watershed system has 21st century-style goals: flood and erosion control, healthy habitat for wildlife and native plants, aesthetic value that distinguishes the downtown core, and creeks as outdoor educational “classrooms.”
Waters said that preserving fresh water resources is an obvious priority for any community, but beyond that, it’s an indication of a healthy area.
“If bad things go wrong in the watershed, wildlife, vegetation — everything suffers,” he said.
Communities also “suffer” when a natural resource is neglected. The rebar (steel beams) in the small sluice gate catch not only woody debris, but unsightly garbage that is thrown into the creek.
Invasive plants like ivy, periwinkle and French broom compete for space with oak, dogwood, alders and other trees and native plants.
Because the dam is at the north end of Wagner Ranch Nature Area and teachers often take students there to learn about the creek environment, a vital ecological tool is put into jeopardy if it is not maintained.
Most notably, while water may pass through — or even overflow — the dam, the turbulent water forms a barrier that is not conducive to fish traveling upstream to reproduce and continue their life cycles.
Waters is encouraged by more than 30 people from the community who showed up at a recent City Council meeting to speak in support of Friends of Orinda Creeks’ efforts to incorporate restoration of the creek in the city’s downtown revitalization plans.
“We want to get the word out that the creek is a healthy system. We want EBMUD to do what it takes to monitor SP201 so that it’s kept open: it’s their structure.”
In August, EBMUD again cleared accumulated debris, and in October, the metal bars were cut away.
“It’s still too small an opening, but that’s why they’re now able to say there are trout,” said Waters. “We want to keep them on board. We hope more people will appreciate that it’s a valuable educational and aesthetic resource.”