Restoring Los Padres’ Native Steelhead Trout Habitat

Davy Brown 1st crossingThe anadromous Southern California steelhead (SCS) trout distinct population segment (DPS) indigenous to Southern California received Endangered Species status in 1997 due to declining populations. Annually returning adult SCS, from the ocean to freshwaters, is estimated at less than 1% of historical numbers. Over the last two decades, the situation for these trout native to the Los Padres National Forest (LPNF) has continued to deteriorate owing to surface water extractions, dams, drought, climate change and impacts due to wildfire. This endangered species now has one of the highest levels of federal protection. 

Stream conditions and steelhead critical habitat were further degraded by the massive Zaca Fire in 2007 that denuded landscapes and contributed to greater sediment deposition downstream, affecting steelhead access to traditional spawning grounds. As SCS stocks have declined substantially from their historic numbers across the LPNF and other parts of Southern California, many are now facing extinction.

Beginning in the early 1990s, LPNF staff sought to develop ways to enhance steelhead habitat within the Lower Manzana Creek watershed and its tributaries. However, costs associated with the level and extent of work necessary to remove barriers and improve upstream access were more than the LPNF could afford. Thirty years later the price tag had grown substantially, and there were concerns that the project was too expensive given the lack of funding for construction.

A fire restoration settlement reached in 2011 for the Zaca Fire and the smaller 2003 Piru Fire eventually returned more than $10 million to the Forest for project restoration work in burn scar areas. The LPNF entered a partnership with the National Fish and Wildfire Foundation (NFWF) in 2015 to leverage additional funds by engaging with external organizations on shared project work that addresses wildfire impacts to habitat and watershed health. A primary focus of the NFWF partnership aims to improve ecological outcomes for the watersheds and ecosystems directly affected by the Zaca and Piru Fires.

We partnered with South Coast Habitat Restoration (SCHR) to remove one low-water concrete crossing on Munch Creek and two on Davy Brown Creek that were impaired and impeded SCS migration to these primary spawning and rearing grounds. SCHR was successful in leveraging additional funding from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Coastal Conservancy, Santa Barbara County’s Coastal Resources Enhancement Fund, California Fish Passage Forum, and CalTrout. Funding from these state and local agencies and non-profits garnered an additional $1.9 million to support project implementation.

Work on this project began in fall 2020 and included the removal of the low-water concrete crossing on Munch Creek below the Davy Brown Campground. The downstream section of Munch Creek below the low-water crossing had become entrenched and the concrete slab raised significantly off the streambed below. Similar shortcomings applied to the two low-water crossings on Davy Brown Creek. The crossings on Davy Brown Creek are currently being replaced with two free-span bridges that will pass 100-year flood events, unlike the smaller Munch Creek which will remain in a natural state.

Planning for the project began in the spring of 2018 and work was fully completed in March 2022.