Santa Clara River Steelhead Habitat Assessment and Recovery Opportunities
Lower Santa Clara River Watershed, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, CA


: Santa Clara River Steelhead Trout: Assessment and Recovery Opportunities 2005  26mg

Sespe Creek continues to maintain high quality habitat and native ocean-bound rainbow trout.

Stoecker Ecological co-managed this project along with Elise Kelley of UCSB and conducted field surveys and assessment of salmonid habitat, migration barriers, and population analysis using CDFG protocol modified for this specific watershed. Management activities also included collaboration with county, state, and federal agencies and private organizations as well as conducting comprehensive landowner identification, outreach, and requesting access permission. The project was funded by The Natural Conservancy and the Santa Clara River Trustee Council.

Historic documentation of an important recreational steelhead fishery occurs for the Santa Clara River into the mid 1900’s. Construction of dams and other migration barriers on the mainstem, Santa Paula Creek, Sespe Creek, Piru Creek, and other tributaries during the mid 1900’s appear to be correlated with the demise of the steelhead run as habitat availability decreased and surface flows became highly manipulated (Capelli 1983, Moore 1980a, Outland 1971). Adult steelhead have continued to attempt to migrate up the Santa Clara River into recent times with an adult trapped at the Vern Freeman Dam in 2001. A wild, self-sustainable rainbow trout population still exists in the headwaters of the Santa Paula, Sespe, Hopper, and Piru Creek tributaries and is producing out-migrating steelhead smolts bound for the Pacific.

Bear tracks below the reflection of the Sespe Creek Gorge.

Surface water diversions and groundwater pumping on the Santa Clara River reduce the river’s surface flow, and cause barriers to fish migration in the form of diversion dams, grade control structures, road crossings, and channelization projects. These barriers reduce or prevent access to the river’s critical salmonid spawning and rearing habitat in the tributaries. Exotic predatory fish such as green sunfish and bullhead catfish observed in Sespe Creek, and other exotic gamefish in Piru Creek and other watershed reservoirs, compete with and prey upon the native steelhead and rainbow trout population.

The tributaries that occur within the geographic boundaries of this study include:  Santa Paula Creek, Sespe Creek, Pole Creek, Hopper Creek, and Piru Creek.  The largest of these tributaries are Sespe and Piru Creeks. There were 702 habitat units surveyed in the Santa Clara River watershed for this study, and 129 natural and anthropogenic fish migration barriers identified.



The Vern Freeman Diversion Dam on the lower Santa Clara River impedes steelhead passage to and from all adequate spawning and rearing habitat in the watershed.
The Harvey Dam fishway on Santa Paula Creek
was highly damaged by winter flows and prevents
upstream steelhead migration.
SE field researcher Shaw Allen atop an obsolete dam and partial steelhead barrier on the Sespe Creek tributary, Lion Creek.
Riparian zone in fall colors highlight the
meandering upper Sespe
Snow covered peaks above Sespe Creek & Piedras Blancas.
Santa Clara River downstream of Santa Paula Creek.
The occurrence and distribution of non-native fish, such as the black bullhead, were identified in Sespe Creek.
Forest Service road crossing fish barrier on Piru Creek above Pyramid Reservoir.
Chrome steelhead fresh from the ocean trapped at the Vern Freeman Diversion Dam, 1995. Courtesy M. Capelli.
We floated backpacks and surveying gear through several gorge pools during a multi-week survey of Sespe Creek.
Meeting place... the mouth of the Santa Clara River, sandbar, and Pacific ocean.
Good day fishing on Sespe Creek in the early 1900’s. Courtesy M. Capelli.
Upper Santa Paula Creek contains excellent steelhead habitat and high densities of O. mykiss.
SE field researcher Shaw Allen among ice patches, rain, and an early winter on Sespe Creek.
Santa Felicia Dam on lower Piru Creek blocks steelhead from the Santa Clara River’s largest former steelhead spawning and rearing tributary.
Aerial view of the Vern Freeman
Diversion Dam and Santa
Clara River water being
Shaw Allen measures depth within the poorly designed and boulder clogged Army Corps fishway on lower Santa Paula Creek.

Months later large winter flows
destroyed the multi- million dollar

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