Does any water remain in our creeks and streams during this historic drought?

by Aleks Wydzga

Like me, you might live near a dry portion of a creek and wonder, “Is there any water left in our local creeks during this drought?”

To check the conditions of our local creeks during this extreme drought, Central Coast Salmon Enhancement (CCSE), with a number of partner organizations, measured water flow at 62 sites throughout the County. Our effort for this monitoring, which has been done on a shoe-string budget, has included crews from the California Conservation Corps (CCC), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Veteran Program, and the City of San Luis Obispo, as well as, students from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly). Cal Poly students were enrolled in a 1 unit course developed specifically to support monitoring efforts and provide practical experience for students. The Coastal San Luis Resource Conservation District (CSL-RCD), the CCC, and Cal Poly provided flow equipment.

This data gathering is new to our region and vital to understanding the certain basics about our local Steelhead. Sure, severe droughts have occurred before California, but so far in our lifetime, this one is historic.

Thankfully, after several months of monitoring, not only did we find some of our local creeks still flowing, but we saw young Steelhead trout swimming! While our Steelhead are on the brink of extinction, they are also survivors, living in low flow areas and in warmer temperatures than their more northern counterparts.

We found in the spring, 59% of sites monitored had flowing water, and by early August, the number had dropped to 48%. Furthermore, at three of our County’s creeks (Pismo, San Luis Obispo, and Islay) summer flow is sufficient that they are flow into the ocean. This ‘hydrologic connectivity’ between the creek, estuary, and the ocean can benefit a number of species including to help maintain the typical steelhead trout life cycle.

So our local Steelhead don’t need creeks flowing to the brim all the time. To survive the lower flow summer, they need sections of creek with deep pools, places to hide from predators, and a touch of cool flowing water.

How do we use this data? For one thing, knowing which sections of creek are flowing helps us to identify where to focus our efforts to install off channel ponds or tanks to store winter flows for the release of that water in the spring or summer. It also helps us to identify areas that could benefit from restoration activities to help Steelhead trout even in the face of increased temperatures and climate change. The bottom line is that this data provides critical baseline information that allows us to make meaningful management decisions based on science, not just guesswork.

If you are a private landowner, know of one who wants to participate in our monitoring program, or want to learn how you can do more in the face of this drought, please contact us at info@centralcoastsalmon.com or 805-473-8221.