Crusading for wild steelhead, the San Diego River and Rose Canyon Creek

provided by The Nature School


he Nature School, San Diego's environmental education and ecological restoration academy, is thrilled at the prospect of keeping southern steelhead from the abyss of extinction. Relentless advocacy to protect salmon and steelhead along the Pacific Coast has given impetus to fully protecting San Diego's southern steelhead under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Steelhead's evolution over four millennia has placed their survival in North County's San Mateo Creek and in tributaries of San Luis Rey, San Diego and Sweetwater Rivers streams landlocked by reservoir dams. The minuscule population of juvenile steelhead discovered two years ago in San Mateo Creek -- outnumbered 1,000-to-one by nonnative predators -- are proof of nature's resilience.

Once thought to be a species of trout, but now identified as being in the same genus, or family, as salmon, adult steelhead exceed salmon's agility in leaping and squeezing past stream obstructions. Named for their steel-colored heads upon returning home to spawn, steelhead endure a 3,000-mile gauntlet of drift nets and bottom seining trawlers, a variety of seabirds, sharks and hordes of marine mammals. Special survival adaptations, including ability to spawn more than once, and to return to sea without spawning if entry to the home stream is blocked or water conditions are poor, make "steelies" well suited to abrupt change in climate and water quality of our Southern Coast.

Complicating the whims of the natural world are decades of poor watershed management. Ignoring the needs of nature in favor of roughshod land development has forced southern steelhead and many other native species to the vanishing point. Water-intensive farming in San Mateo's River Valley robs the aquifer, reducing upstream reaches to little more than a trickle. Crowded by nonnative catfish, sunfish, bass and bullfrogs that devour young steelhead, San Mateo is inhospitable habitat. But so is every other river and creek in San Diego County.

With the rationale that uncontrolled rivers emptying into the sea are a waste of water and interfere with economic progress, all of San Diego's rivers are dammed, dewatered and squeezed into concrete and rock channels, becoming little more than trash dumps, vagrant camps and open sewers choked by giant (arundo) weed.

Saving our steelhead is going to be a difficult battle in San Mateo Creek. Military operations on Camp Pendleton Marine Base, a 16-mile toll road underway and farming in the creek's river valley pose formidable threats to stream habitat. Unquenchable thirst of Southern California's expanding urban landscape -- with no water conservation in sight -- makes fish and wildlife preservation monumentally difficult.


Class action

Nearly ten years ago, The Nature School focused community attention on the plight of the San Diego River and its history of salmon family fish. We set the benchmark in a citizen initiative to save San Diego's urban creeks, bringing first-of-their-kind conservation biology programs to San Diego area schools. By 1994, elementary school children were hatching rainbow trout (genetic cousins of steelhead) in classroom aquariums; kids were being guided into marshes for hands-on ecology, water testing and close-up observation of how urban blight threatens clean water and fish and wildlife habitat.

Founders of The Nature School laud the seven-member coalition which recently filed a lawsuit to protect southern steelhead in San Diego County. Also, we would like to clarify a few items:

  • The 1997 federal court order listing certain West Coast populations of steelhead as threatened (on which the present litigation is based) was a result of the lawsuit initiated in 1995 by The Nature School through the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (renamed Earth Justice). Our effort was joined by 18 other organizations interested in taking on the US Dept. of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service.
  • Classroom Aquaria Rearing Education (CARE) is still the only program in the county that has children hatching rainbow trout for release into local waterways. Project CARE helped Carlsbad's Magnolia Elementary School win "State School of Distinction" and "National Blue Ribbon School" awards for the interdisciplinary application of biology to natural resource conservation.
  • Project CARE sixth graders' testimony and video at a Regional Water Quality Control Board hearing convinced state water officials to deny demands by developers who wanted to open the San Luis River Valley to unfathomable destruction, sealing steelhead's fate forever.
  • Saving San Diego's native steelhead means preserving the fishes coastal habitat for other endangered fish and wildlife; practical benefits that offer ways for city and county agencies to meet federal and state mandates for clean water.
  • The Nature School's restoration work in Rose Creek, near Mission Bay, plus the possibility of receiving reclaimed water from the North City Treatment Plant, gives the site a unique advantage for reintroduction of native steelhead to its ancient spawning grounds.
  • To those concerned that The Nature School associates steelhead with salmon, a news report in the latest issue of dubon Magazinepeaks of Santa Barbara Coast "steelhead salmon."
  • Although not a party to the new coalition's lawsuit to list southern steelhead, we will continue our crusade for clean water, teaching kids about fixing fragmented habitat, restoring creeks and reconstructing wetlands for benefit of aquatic recreation and wildlife in San Diego's unequalled bioregion.

Wishing all a renewed environmental passion for 2001.

Gloria J. Carrillo & Robert LaRosa, PhD, co-founders of The Nature School; (619) 224-2003; email:; 5173-10 Brighton Ave., San Diego, CA 92107.