Steelhead Management in the Salinas Watershed

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The range and abundance of Steelhead trout has declined dramatically from historical population estimates in the Salinas watershed[1]. Loss of diverse and distinct habitats is considered a major contributor to declining steelhead populations as less habitat is available for the numerous life cycle phases and life history pathways. Modification and loss of habitat areas for spawning and rearing steelheads in the Salinas watershed has been compromised by the implementation of dams, concrete in streams, road crossings, lack of vegetation, and improper management practices.[2]. Declining steelhead populations have also been linked to pollution, low base flows and increased water temperatures. [3]. It is estimated that runs have been reduced from a historical 32,000‐46,000 returning adults (annually) to less than 500 steelhead adults.[4]


The Salinas River is 172 miles long and drains a watershed area of 4,780 square miles within Monterey County, , California. The Salinas River Basin consists of the Salinas River, three major tributaries (Arroyo Seco, Nacimiento, and San Antonio Rivers), and eight smaller tributaries [5] The river flows northwest from headwaters on the north side of Garcia Mountain to its mouth near the town of Marina. [6] Dams have been built on the Salinas River mainstem and all major tributaries except for the Arroyo Seco River. This has heavily influenced stream hydrology and the ability of steelhead to access spawning and rearing habitat within the Salinas Basin. [5] The dam on the Salinas River effectively segregates the upper portion of the river while the Nacimiento River and San Antonio dams have further reduced and eliminated sizable steelhead runs. These dams are expected to decrease runoff to the ocean substantially in the future with flow anticipated only during wet years with winter runoff volumes insufficient in attracting and permitting steelhead entrance. [6] In addition, the health of the Salinas River and its tributaries is diminishing as evident through demonstrated high nitrate concentrations, erosion, diversion and barrier impacts and the lowest recorded water quality in Monterey County. [3]

Conservation Status and Efforts

Conservation initiatives and recovery efforts for steelhead populations requires protection, restoration and maintenance of a wide range of habitats to allow natural diversity of the species to be fully expressed. Inadequate information regarding life history characteristics and abundance are key factors limiting efforts and effective management actions.[5] However, NOAA Fisheries Service has dominated the recovery effort through mandates and recommendations of Recovery Plans and Biological Opinions.

NOAA Fisheries Service

NOAA Fisheries Service designated two Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of steelhead in the Monterey Bay Region in 1997 and designated Critical Habitat areas in 2005. These steelhead were listed as “Threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act(ESA) and were described as the Central California Coast steelhead DPS and the South-Central California Coast steelhead DPS. The South-Central DPS includes steelhead populations in the Salinas watershed as the designations extends below natural and manmade impassable barriers in streams from the Pajaro River (inclusive) to, but not including the Santa Maria River, California [7] These designations allow NOAA Fisheries Service to regulate impacts to steelhead including habitat modification and require development and implementation of recovery plans for conservation of the species. These recovery plans must establish clear objectives, include specific management measures, and estimate timeframes and costs of actions and recovery [8].

The Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity, fishing groups and other environmental groups have worked to improve protection for steelhead trout after it was listed as a threatened species in 1997. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against NOAA Fisheries Service which resulted in critical habitat protections and regulations and prevented illegal “take” of steelhead. In 2005, the final critical habitat areas were designated and excluded rainbow trout, steelhead trout landlocked above dams and important riparian habitat areas. [9].

The Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration

The Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration (CEMAR)has led a small steelhead restoration program along the California coast since 2001 through compilation of a digital archive of key information sources, documentation of the historical distribution and current status of salmonid populations, and evaluation of the potential for watersheds to support restored salmonid populations [10].

Resources at stake

Stakeholders such as fishermen, NOAA Fisheries Service, CA Dept of Fish and Game, CalFish, Monterey County Water Resources Agency and the State Water Resources Control Board are working to protect the following resources:[2]

  • Recreational and commercial fishing industries
  • Ecosystem balance and diversity
  • Health of the Salinas River (provides water and sediments to Monterey Bay)
  • Monterey Bay and the National Marine Sanctuary

Key Dates

Important dates regarding regulation, management and conservation of the South-Central DPS are listed below: [7]

  • Aug 18th, 1997 - Listed as threatened under the ESA
  • June 28th 2005 - Final protective regulations issued
  • Sep 2nd, 2005 - Critical Habitat designated for the South-Central DPS under the ESA
  • Jan 5th, 2006 - Threatened status reaffirmed
  • June 21st 2007 – A Biological Opinion was issued by NOAA Fisheries requesting steelhead escapement monitoring
  • Dec 7th, 2011 - Five-year review determined South-Central DPS should continue to be listed as threatened

Recent Events

Salinas Valley Water Project - Diversion Facility

The Salinas Valley Water Project (SVWP) is a collaborative effort between Salinas Valley stakeholders and the Monterey County Water Resources Agencyto address water resources management issues in the Salinas Basin while incorporating steelhead recovery strategies. The SVWP intends to provide long term management and protection of groundwater resources in the basin by stopping seawater intrusion, providing adequate water supplies, allowing flexibility to meet current and future needs, and providing the surface water supply necessary to balance groundwater in the Salinas Basin. The Monterey County Water Resources Agency installed an inflatable rubber dam diversion facility in May 2010 that inflates from April to October, creating a reservoir of water to be treated at the wastewater treatment plant operated by the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency (MRWPCA)[11]. The diversion facility cost $14 million out of the $33 million designated for the Salinas Valley Water Project, which also included changes to the Lake Nacimiento Dam spillway. Features of the diversion facility include a spillway gate operated with an inflatable dam, a screened diversion designed to avoid steelhead fry entrainment, a fishway to facilitate passage during migration, and a low-flow passage to enable passage over the deflated structure[12]. Specifically, the MCWRA has developed flow prescriptions based on reservoir conditions and stream flow to avoid impacts to steelhead and critical habitat areas. [5]Depending on these conditions, releases of water may be made to facilitate upstream or downstream migration of steelhead. The project also includes fish and flow surveillance activities and a steelhead population and habitat monitoring program [6]. The Biological Opinion issued by NOAA Fisheries Service also requested that adult steelhead escapement monitoring be conducted. In 2011, FISHBIO implemented this escapement program with the objective of investigating abundance, escapement and characteristics of migration through operation of a fish counting weir in the Salinas River. [5] Integrity of the dam was compromised in June 2011 when excess water landed on the downstream side of the dam and severely eroded crucial areas of the riverbed [13].


  1. Williams TH, Lindley ST, Spence BC, Boughton D. 2011. Status review update for Pacific Salmon and Steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act: Southwest Region. National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Fisheries Ecology Division
  2. 2.0 2.1
  3. 3.0 3.1
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2
  7. 7.0 7.1
  9. George A. 2006. Threatened steelhead. Bay Nature. Ear to the ground. Accessed Apr 3, 2012:
  10. Boughton DA. 2007. [NMFS] National Marine Fisheries Service. Biological Opinion, Salinas River Diversion Facility. Oyer, P.H., 1912.
  13. Johnson J. 2012. Salinas rubber dam repair costs soar. Monterey County Herald. News. Accessed Apr 3, 2012:



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