Steelhead Trout? Surfriders Give a Dam

by Paul Jenkin

For centuries the cycle continued unhindered. Every year, in one of the great wonders of the natural world, millions of salmon and steelhead trout left the oceans to swim up the rivers to their birthplaces in the mountains. From Alaska to Mexico, and as far inland as Idaho and Montana, this mass migration of fish was the center of life for generations of native Americans and the pioneers who settled the West. Today, salmon fisheries are in serious decline. The southern steelhead trout, an ocean-going rainbow trout that once thrived in Southern California, is now an endangered species on the brink of extinction. The number-one reason: dams.

Indicator Species

What do surfers have in common with steelhead trout? In the Surfrider video, "Keepers of the Coast," surfers are half-seriously called the indicator species for the health of our beaches. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine or the beleaguered spotted owl of the redwood forest, indicator species reflect the health of the environment. A declining population of a specific species of plant or animal tells us that something is wrong with the natural systems that sustain life.

The indicator species for our coastal waters are fish like the steelhead trout. And the things that are vital to the survival of the steelhead trout are important to surfers: both need unpolluted, free-flowing rivers. The decline in salmon and steelhead populations, along with increasingly frequent beach closures and worsening erosion, are symptoms of the problems facing our coasts.

Blocking the Flows

Though Surfrider Foundation has been concerned with water quality for many years, today we are realizing that the very existence of our sport is at risk. Beach erosion around the world threatens to change our wide, sandy beaches into narrow strips backed by concrete seawalls. Just as we have learned to look upstream to the source of pollutants in coastal waters, we recognize that our beaches rely on the rivers for their sand.

It is likely that the middle part of this century will go down in history as the age of dams. Over a fifty-year period, almost every flowing river in the nation was systematically blocked up to support a growing human population with an insatiable hunger for water and energy. Many of these dams quickly became useless as they filled to the brim with sediment.

Today we are experiencing the long-term effects of dammed rivers. Decades worth of sediment, once destined to become beach sand, lies trapped behind dams. Fish are completely cut off from their spawning waters in the upper reaches of the rivers. Dams are directly responsible for the endangered status of the Southern Steelhead Trout. They are also a major factor in the loss of our beaches.

Restoring the Ventura River and Surfers Point

One of the most popular surf spots in Ventura County is Surfers Point. Located at the mouth of the Ventura River, it has suffered incessant erosion since the construction of a bike path and parking lot in 1989. The Ventura County Chapter has worked hard to convince city planners that the best solution is to restore

the beach, rather than build a seawall. Successful in its efforts, current plans call for a managed retreat, which includes relocating the damaged facilities inland and restoring the beach with dunes and cobble.

To help ensure the long-term success of this project, the Ventura County Chapter has become an advocate for river restoration. The focus of this effort is Matilija Dam, on the upper reaches of the river. The obsolete structure is almost overflowing with fifty years worth of potential beach sand. Built on an active earthquake fault, its structural instabilities represent a serious safety hazard. In addition, the 140-foot dam completely blocks steelhead from prime spawning waters on Matilija Creek.

Given this dangerous potential for failure, the dwindling population of steelhead trout, and the desperate need for renewed sand flow, Matilija is a dam just asking to be dismantled. The idea is gaining momentum and support around the state, and Surfrider joins a coalition of more than 80 groups and individuals working to remove this ill-conceived structure.

Resolutions and Solutions - Restoring Ecosystems for the Future

Once considered a radical approach to environmental restoration, dam removal is coming of age. Dams across the nation are now being examined for their benefits, as well as true environmental costs. Those that fail to add up will be removed.

In January of this year, the Surfrider Environmental Issues Team (EIT) passed A RESOLUTION IN SUPPORT OF REMOVAL OF DAMS IN COASTAL WATERSHEDS. This resolution recognizes the need to restore natural sand supplies to the beaches by removing obsolete dams on the rivers that drain directly into the ocean.

This watershed approach to environmental restoration takes into consideration all the factors affecting a river system. Everything flows downstream, so we know if we can restore the rivers and bring back the fish, our beaches will benefit. In the case of Matilija Dam the solution is clear:

Give a Dam, Free the Sand, Grow the Beach!


More reading:

Outside Magazine: Blow Up!, February 1999

Smithsonian, The Battle of the Dams, November 1998

Surfrider Foundation, Ventura County Chapter, Surfers Point Task