GreenTown Los Altos

Where Have All the Steelhead Trout Gone?


May 2012


GreenTown Los Altos Collaborates on Creek and Watershed Restoration Efforts

by Peg Champion
GreenTown Los Altos Correspondent

There was a time, not long ago, when a maturing steelhead trout could swim from Permanente or Adobe Creek to its adult home in the San Francisco Bay. Today, steelhead are unable to make that journey and have all but disappeared from many of the local creeks in Santa Clara Valley.

Map of our local watershed. Red lines show concrete channel areas. Photo credit: Map courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.

Flood control measures and urban development over the past 50 years have transformed creeks into concrete channels, and the original salt marshes are now salt evaporation ponds.  Thanks to invasive species, native ecosystems are vanishing, and toxins and trash have degraded the watershed.
“Our watersheds and creeks have been compromised by logging, agriculture, mining and channelizing.  Few streams support fish migrations in ‘traditional’ pre-1950s manner,” says Jim McCarthy, an Acterra Streamkeeper volunteer and a member of numerous other creek monitoring organizations.

Acterra, an environmental non-profit serving Silicon Valley, GreenTown Los Altos, and many local organizations (see below) are working hard to remedy the situation.  This Saturday, May 19, marks a nationwide river cleanup effort and, here in Los Altos, GreenTown is leading a trash cleanup of Permanente Creek. “Many of us drive over the four main creeks in Los Altos every day, unaware of their existence or their condition.  Come this Saturday and learn how rainwater, water from landscaping and storm drains, and trash all meet in our creeks on their way to the Bay,” says Barb O’Reilly, event coordinator and member of the GreenTown Water Stewardship team.  “Come be a part of our solution to creek pollution!”

The GreenTown Water Stewardship program works to reduce water consumption, runoff pollution and household chemicals and pharmaceuticals that are dumped into the wastewater system.  Joe Eyre, a member of the stewardship team, also serves on the Los Altos Environmental Commission. “This year, one of the Environmental Commission’s initiatives is increasing awareness – and the health – of our watersheds.  In addition, the city has taken the positive step of committing to reduce trash flowing into our streams by banning expanded polystyrene takeout containers and single-use plastic bags, by no later than July, 2014.”

The City of Los Altos contracted with Acterra to restore Redwood Grove, a nature preserve in Los Altos that surrounds Adobe Creek.  This model restoration project brings community volunteers together to remove invasive plants, establish native plants and create habitat for native wildlife.  Water flow and animals in the watershed are indicators of health and sustainability, according to McCarthy.  But the challenge is to manage flood control and storm water flow, while striving for “the ultimate success of restoration and sustainability: full watershed access to ocean-going fish,” says McCarthy.

Redwood Grove

In January, in conjunction with the Shaped by Water exhibit at the Los Altos History Museum, Acterra and artist Daniel McCormick worked with local volunteers to build a bio-engineered willow sculpture. The living sculpture will restore a creek bank in the park. Photo credit: ©Joel Bartlett, 2012

Acterra also sponsors the Stevens and Permanente Creeks Watershed Project, which monitors water chemistry, bacteria and toxicity of aquatic habitat – particularly in Stevens Creek.  Joanne McFarlin, Acterra senior ecologist and project director says, “We encourage the idea of the ‘citizen-scientist.’  We need local volunteers to monitor water quality, participate in our ongoing study of creek bugs at our ‘Bug Club,’ and help with creekside habitat restoration.” McFarlin says there are many causes of pollution – from business and residential development to industrial waste – but urban runoff is by far the most difficult to address. “Most residents don’t know that they are contributing to local creek pollution by using pesticides and fertilizers in their yards, washing their car in the driveway, draining their pool into the storm drain and allowing their cars to drip oil onto roadways.”  However, McFarlin says she is encouraged by the “trend toward creek and watershed revitalization and restoration” by local municipalities, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the state and federal government.

Jill Bicknell, assistant program manager at the Santa Clara Valley Urban Runoff
Pollution Prevention Program (SCVURPP), agrees. Bicknell acknowledges the detrimental impact of flood-control measures instituted in the ‘50s and ‘70s, and from urban development and impervious cover (roads, driveways and parking lots) but she says, “One of the biggest problems is trash” from storm drains, especially plastic bags and polystyrene foam.  SCVURPP manages Watershed Watch, a public-education campaign that promotes simple things citizens can do to help protect their watershed.  “There’s an increase in public awareness and a movement towards more natural processes in watershed management,” says Bicknell.

“It’s important to remember that we are all upstream from our oceans,” says Jessica Frank, Surfrider Foundation outreach coordinator for the Rise Above Plastics campaign.  The campaign works to keep plastics out of the marine environment and helps people to reduce their plastic footprint.  “It’s imperative that people understand the impact their actions have, and that simple, local actions can solve this global issue.”

“We have to manage storm runoff and ‘slow it, spread it, sink it,’” says Dr Rick Lanman, founder of Friends of Adobe Creek, an organization dedicated to restoring the once-perennial stream.  “This means keeping the water from running off into the Bay.  If it has time to soak into the ground, then the water table gets recharged.  During the dry season, water flows out of the ground aquifer and back into the creek.  This is what makes a creek perennial.”

Lanman says that to restore the watershed, “we need to eliminate in-stream barriers, concrete and incised creek channels and to clarify the streams of harmful sediment by replanting stream banks with native riparian plants.  The steelhead is an ‘indicator species’ of environmental health.  When the steelhead come back, we’ll know we have a healthy ecosystem.”

Brownie Girl Scouts Troop 61015

Almond School Brownie Girl Scouts Troop 61015 with the metal pipe they found at the Sept. 2011 Permanente Creek Cleanup. This year’s cleanup will launch a pilot program for scrap metal to be recycled rather than sent to the landfill as in previous years. Photo credit: ©Sara Elkin, 2011

Be Part of the Solution to Creek Pollution
National River Cleanup Day: Permanente Creek Cleanup
Saturday, May 19, 9am-Noon, Heritage Oaks Park, Los Altos
Register Now.
Volunteers will meet at the picnic tables, at Heritage Oaks Park near Miramonte & Portland Avenues in Los Altos.  Wear long pants, sturdy shoes and sunscreen.  Bring your own pick-up sticks, re-useable water bottles and gloves.  All youth under 18 need supervision and transportation to the cleanup site.

Sponsored by GreenTown Los Altos and the Creek Connections Action Group, a consortium of public agencies and non-profit organizations that share a goal of protecting Santa Clara County’s waterways.

Water Quality Monitoring of Los Altos Creeks
To better understand the state of our creeks, GreenTown Los Altos is exploring working with Acterra and others to monitor water quality in our local creeks, starting with Permanente.  Please let us know if you are interested in working on this project.  Email

Water Education Information
Slow it.  Spread it.  Sink it!  A Homeowner’s and Landowner’s Guide to Beneficial Stormwater Management

“Shaped By Water: Past, Present and Future”  This Los Altos History Museum water education exhibit closed April 22; the exhibit now travels to the History Museum of Los Gatos, where it will open in August 2012.

Watershed Restoration Organizations
Acterra –
Creek Connections Action Group –
Friends of Adobe Creek –
GreenTown Los Altos
Los Altos Environmental Commission
Los Altos Hills Water Conservation and Open Space Committees
Santa Clara County Creeks Coalition –
Santa Clara Valley Urban Runoff Pollution Prevention Program –
Stevens Creek/Permenente Creek Watershed Council
Surfrider Foundation –
Watershed Watch –

Peg Champion is a member of GreenTown Los Altos and the principal of Champion Organic Communications.  She helps businesses tell their sustainability stories.  For more information visit

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