Stanford starts building fish ladder
Publication Date: Wednesday May 31, 1995

ENVIRONMENT: Stanford starts building fish ladder

'Fishway' will help restore steelhead trout population in two local creeks

Stanford University began construction last week on a fish ladder that will enable steelhead trout to circumvent a dam in Los Trancos Creek and reach miles of spawning waters upstream. Stanford expects to complete the $153,000 construction project by August.

The ladder is a major step toward reviving and sustaining one of the last native steelhead trout runs in the South Bay.

"Stevens Creek, Guadalupe, Coyote, Alameda--all those creeks had native steelhead trout runs in them," said Joel Scheinberg, president of California Trout, a statewide conservation group that is collaborating with Stanford and Santa Clara County on the fish ladder. "Now, because of dams and habitat degradation, they just have a few lost fish."

The fish ladder is "essential to the steelhead run," said Patricia Anderson, an area fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. "It's wonderful to see it happening after so many years of working on it."

"There's a great sense of optimism related to this project," said Bob Hockey, demand and planning manager at Stanford University's utilities division and project manager of the fish ladder. "This is the climax of years of hard work by various people dealing with . . . environmental concern and Stanford's existing water right. We see this as a win-win situation."

Stanford University began diverting water from Los Trancos Creek above its confluence with San Franscisquito Creek in the late 1920s after obtaining water rights from the state. The current 8-foot-high dam on Los Trancos Creek, near the intersection of Alpine and Arastradero Roads, allows Stanford to divert water to Felt Lake for campuswide irrigation and firefighting use.

But that diversion also cuts off steelhead trout from prime spawning waters above the dam. Steelhead trout, like salmon, hatch in freshwater streams and then migrate downstream to the bay and then the open ocean to live. They then return as adult fish--using a refined sense of smell, it is believed--to their home stream to spawn.

Because of dams, such as the one on Los Trancos Creek, and degradation of their habitat largely due to development, the number of steelhead has declined to the point where it is now listed as a "species of special concern" by the California Department of Fish and Game and is a candidate for federal endangered species status.

Creek advocate Jim Johnson's discovery of two adult steelhead trout in San Francisquito Creek near El Palo Alto in 1988 demonstrated that steelhead trout still existed in the creek. That proof that trout were still attempting to spawn in the creek reinvigorated Scheinberg's and others' efforts to save the steelhead run.

Initially blocked, those efforts met with success in 1993 when California Trout and the Department of Fish and Game secured a grant from the California state Wildlife Conservation Board to partially fund the Los Trancos Creek fish ladder.

The fish ladder project consists of a 25-foot "Alaska Steep Pass Fishway" to help adult fish swimming upstream bypass the dam to spawn, as well as a fish screen to prevent adult and juvenile fish from being carried into the Felt Lake diversion on their way downstream. The fishway is a steel staircase that allows the fish to flop their way up and over the dam.

Hockey estimates the total cost of the project to be between $300,000 and $400,000. The Wildlife Conservation Board grant will cover $97,750 of Stanford's expenses.

Fishing is prohibited on both San Francisquito and Los Trancos creeks. Anderson hopes to see more steelhead trout in both creeks as a result of the fish ladder but is also concerned about the increased potential of poaching.

"We'll need some extra eyes on the creeks," she said. "But that's part of the beauty of this project . . . how many members of the community, both public and private, are involved and want the steelhead run and the creeks restored."

--Milan Kovacevic 

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