Seven years after Jim Johnson surprisingly found two steelhead in San Francisquito Creek, a unique coalition of groups has completed a landmark project to help restore the watershed's fishery.
Today the coalition which includes local environmentalists, the state Department of Fish & Game and Stanford University will celebrate the completion of a fish ladder on Los Trancos Creek, a tributary of San Francisquito.
The fish ladder will allow winter-run steelhead to swim past the six-foot high dam that diverts water to Felt Lake, opening up more than three miles of new spawning grounds for the sea-going trout.
"Rather than take one leap of six feet, the fish can take 10 leaps of six inches . . . It's like a staircase of water," said Bob Hockey, project manager for the Stanford Utilities Division.
The project, which was conceived more than two years ago, cost a total of about $350,000, including staff time, design and construction. Construction alone cost about $170,000.
"It's physically small, but it was a complex project in terms of permitting and rules and regulations," Hockey said. "The teamwork has been very inspiring."
Stanford will be reimbursed $97,000 for construction work through a grant obtained by CalTrout from the state Wildlife Conservation Board.
The dam, near the junction of Arastradero and Alpine roads, was installed in 1929 by Stanford in order to allow high water to flow through a channel into Felt Lake.
In 1988, when Johnson found two dead, 30-inch steelhead in San Francisquito Creek near El Palo Alto downtown, nobody knew there were steelhead still swimming up from the bay.
Johnson photographed the fish and took the pictures to Joel Scheinberg at CalTrout as proof that steelhead were still in the creek, even after several drought years.
Scheinberg contacted Michael McNight, Stanford's utilities director at the time, who got the university on board.
"We're real happy Stanford did this," said Johnson, a Redwood City resident and member of the Friends of San Francisquito Creek. "It's an expensive alternative to taking down the dam. But if it works it could potentially be used in other stream systems."
The steelhead run generally peaks in February, Johnson said. The fish will spend two or three years in the creek growing to about nine inches before heading out to sea.
Johnson said the next project may be to find a way to help the fish past the stream stabilization dam next to El Palo Alto, which is there to protect the city's namesake redwood tree against stream erosion. The dam is only a couple feet high, so it's only a problem in drought years. That's where he found the fish in 1988.
No fishing is allowed in San Francisquito Creek and its tributaries in order to bring the steelhead population back, Johnson said.
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