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News: 10/01/2014

Stuart Creek gets a steelhead remodel

Removal of three barriers paves way to return Stuart Creek to former glory

Crews work to create a series of pools and chutes for steelhead at Stuart Creek Run in September. Photo courtesy of Sonoma Land Trust.

Last year a 24-inch grown male steelhead – nicknamed “Ernie” – was caught and released during a creek study near Glen Ellen. Thanks to a new project spearheaded by the Sonoma Land Trust, the journey from ocean to creek this spawning season may be a lot less arduous for Ernie and his friends.

With concrete poured and curing, the barriers to restoring a healthy steelhead run near Glen Ellen are finally coming down. At the Stuart Creek property near Arnold Drive, purchased by the Sonoma Land Trust in 2011, an eroded dam, a failing bridge and a culvert beneath the Arnold Drive bridge have all been modified or demolished to pave the way for steelhead returning from the ocean to spawn in the upper Sonoma Creek watershed.

Removing all three barriers is essential to improving juvenile and adult steelhead passage, according to Sonoma Land Trust (SLT) project manager Tony Nelson. When the project is finally complete, more than two miles of high-quality habitat will be available to steelhead for the first time in decades. Stuart Creek is a tributary of Sonoma Creek, which once supported the second largest steelhead run among Bay Area streams.

Despite a few hiccups – like unexpected water flow released by the Napa earthquake and a little bit of recent rain – crews are on track to complete the epic remodel by the Oct. 31 deadline, when seasonal creek water levels are expected to rise.

The work has moved fast for a project of this size, said Nelson. It’s taken just three years of planning and fundraising since SLT purchased the 3.5-acre Stuart Creek Run property, which parallels Arnold Drive, and acquired two other nearby parcels. Crews from the Sonoma-based contractor Hanford A.R.C. have been out on site for several months now and heavy machinery and towering piles of dirt are clearly visible from the road.

Considered highest priority, the barrier on Stuart Creek Run is where the most of the work is being done, said Nelson. Erosion under an old bridge had created a seven-foot drop in the creek. Crews have removed the bridge and are regrading the channel with a series five 40-foot-long pools with 20-foot long chutes between them. SLT has contracted with the Sonoma Ecology Center to revegetate the site once construction is complete. Nelson said the project is not designed to create spawning habitat, but “ to give fish a place to rest,” before they move on to the next stage of their spawning journey.

After its purchase of Stuart Creek Run, the Sonoma Land Trust also discovered that a culvert under the bridge in Glen Ellen and a historic dam upstream on Glen Oaks Ranch, across Hwy. 12, also owned by the SLT, were two more barriers on the steelhead’s journey. Instead of removing the culvert and dam completely, SLT decided to make modifications and improvements, assisted by a $691,644 grant from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fisheries Restoration Grant Program.

“The overall objective is to allow fish to get up to where the good habitat is,” said Nelson, presumably the natural pool created by the waterfall on Bouverie Preserve. Nelson said he ran the numbers and approximately 90 percent of the creek is protected between the efforts of organizations like Audubon Canyon Ranch (which owns Bouverie Preserve) and Sonoma Land Trust. “That amounts to 50 percent of the watershed,” said Nelson. What’s more, Stuart Creek represents an aquatic linkage in the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, which provides wildlife the habitat to move from the top of Sonoma Mountain across Sonoma Creek and the valley floor, then east to the top of the Mayacamas Mountains.

With the completion of construction, Nelson said he thinks Stuart Creek is positioned to make a comeback. “The Stuart Creek habitat is healthy, the water quality is excellent, and food is abundant.”

SLT will coordinate with Bouverie Preserve staff, agency fisheries biologists and volunteers to monitor the creek for steelhead activity for a minimum of three years.

“It has taken a lot of people and a lot of good organizations to put this together,” said Nelson. “It shows we can do this stuff. It takes a lot of people and it takes a lot of money, but we can do this. We can do a lot – all for a fish.”

SLT will begin designing the public-use component of the Stuart Creek Run project this fall, which includes picnic tables and interpretive panels, making it a desirable stopover for the people, as well as fish.

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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