Commentary: Protecting fish will ultimately restore our rivers, improving water quality for us all


Locals who like to fish off the coast might be surprised to learn that Southern California steelhead were once prized catches along the coast. With dwindling population numbers, these fish are now federally endangered.

Their struggle is symbolic of a larger challenge: maintaining healthy waterways for people and wildlife in urbanized coastal California. But real progress is being made toward recovering this iconic species. Recent efforts provide hope that these native fish can coexist with people, even in this highly altered landscape.

As urbanization encroaches on natural areas, it’s a challenge to balance competing priorities like flood protection, clean water and environmental benefits. The South Coast Steelhead Coalition, charged with implementing the Southern California steelhead recovery plan, operates on the principle that endangered species are not an inevitable consequence of development. Its members know that ecology and urban infrastructure can coexist.


Composed of over 30 federal, state, local, tribal and non-profit organizations, the coalition works to integrate recovery actions into infrastructure projects that provide additional benefits for people in San Diego and Orange counties.

Steelhead reproduce in freshwater, then migrate to the ocean, where they grow for several years before returning upstream to repeat the cycle. These fish require passage up and down coastal rivers, normally in winter months. They also need year-round cool water and spawning gravels in streams that may be 40 miles inland.

Rainbow trout are the freshwater form of ocean-going steelhead, staying in landlocked bodies of water their whole lives. These trout are resilient even though their habitat is threatened by low water flow, drought and fires. Recovering steelhead will require removing migration barriers and improving steelhead habitat, as well as preserving existing native rainbow trout populations.

One of the most significant fish passage barriers in Southern California is San Juan Capistrano’s Interstate 5 Bridge Array on Trabuco Creek. The barrier removal project led by California Trout in partnership with Trout Unlimited and funded through state agencies will allow steelhead migration through a flood control channel beneath five bridges. Key partnerships are in place with the Orange County Flood Control District, city of San Juan Capistrano, Caltrans and other agencies to provide fish passage while improving water quality and stream health. This project folds into planned flood control work, ensuring efficient use of taxpayer funds.

Another project, on the Santa Margarita River, will replace the Sandia Creek Drive bridge two miles north of Fallbrook. The bridge is a steelhead migration barrier and presents public safety issues due to flooding after storms. Led by Trout Unlimited, the project will fix the fish passage barrier and provide many benefits to Fallbrook residents. This effort leverages a project underway on U.S. Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, that enhances fish passage through a groundwater recharge structure at Lake O’Neill. It benefits fish while improving water supply reliability, reducing local dependence on imported water and meeting the long-term water needs of surrounding communities.

With these two projects completed, steelhead will have unimpeded passage to high-quality habitat in Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve. Improving habitat and clearing the way for migratory fish like steelhead to reach the upper ranges of a watershed are essential parts of fish recovery efforts. We’ve seen salmon and steelhead rebound in other parts of the country where dams are removed and habitat is restored. There’s every reason to believe it will also work here.

These projects, combined with water conservation efforts in the San Luis Rey basin to improve irrigation efficiency and protect native rainbow trout, chart a new path to integrate natural processes into urban landscapes. The solutions that have the best chance of success support both wildlife and people. Protecting fish will ultimately restore our rivers, improving water quality for us all in the process.

SANDRA JACOBSON is the South Coast Region director for the non-profit organization California Trout, which advocates for sound water policy that balances the needs of fish and people. The efforts are partly funded by the Orange County Community Foundation.