San Mateo Creek Enhancement Plan

August 2002



On March 7, 2000, California’s voters passed the "Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Bond Act" (Proposition 12). The Act specified that:

Twenty-two million dollars ($22,000,000) may be expended by the State Coastal

Conservancy directly or as grants to government entities and nonprofit organizations consistent with Division 21 (commencing with Section 31000), and for administrative costs in connection therewith, for the acquisition, development, rehabilitation, restoration, enhancement, and protection of real property, or other actions that benefit fish and wildlife.

It further directed that $800,000 of these funds "shall be spent to restore the arroyo chub, partially armored stickleback, and southern steelhead fisheries to their native creeks of San Mateo Creek, and its tributary Devil Canyon Creek, and San Onofre Creek located in San Diego County." However, the legal framework for action was in flux for more than two years as the NMFS-proposed extension of the range of the endangered species designation of the Southern California steelhead to include San Mateo Creek was being debated. When that extension was finally adopted in May 2002, it catalyzed a renewed effort to cooperate in solving the problems of the San Mateo Creek watershed and promoting the recovery of the its native fish species that has resulted in this project and future actions that are currently being developed.

The Conservancy recently convened a meeting of interested parties (the Working Group), including San Diego Trout (SDT), Trout Unlimited (TU), the California Departments of Fish and Game (DFG) and Parks and Recreation (DPR), the US Forest Service (USFS), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), CalTrout, the US Geological Survey (USGS), the Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton (as observers), and others, to develop this actions Enhancement Plan. The Plan recommends actions that could be taken in the short run to move toward the objectives of Proposition 12 and to lay a foundation for the long-term restoration of the San Mateo Creek watershed. This program is a step in that direction.

BackgroundWatershed Conditions

San Mateo Creek is located in northwestern San Diego County, southwestern Riverside County and southeastern Orange County. The headwaters of the stream originate on the Trabuco Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest. The stream flows westward through Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base and San Onofre State Park, ending at the Pacific Ocean. There are several private holdings within the Forest along the tributaries of San Mateo Creek including areas along Tenaja Creek, Devil Creek and Christianitos Creek, as well as significant areas of private land in the watershed outside the Forest boundaries. Much of the watershed on the Cleveland National Forest is included within the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness.

The watershed encompasses a total of 85,402 acres. These include 40,533 acres of Cleveland National Forest lands, 18,686 acres of Camp Pendleton lands, and 26,183 acres of private lands. The topography is rugged mountains with elevations ranging from 400 feet to 3500 feet. Vegetation types present include chaparral, coastal sage scrub, grassland, oak woodland, and riparian woodland. There are 63 miles of perennial streams within the watershed, of which 11 miles are known or suitable habitat breeding habitat for southern steelhead. Currently, the suitable breeding habitat is the main stem of San Mateo Creek and a portion of Devil Creek. All of the stream miles that are suitable breeding habitat for southern steelhead are within the San Mateo Wilderness of Cleveland National Forest. There are 12 miles of stream on Camp Pendleton that the steelhead use as a corridor.


Stream flow data on San Mateo creek is recorded by USGS at two gauging stations. Monthly stream flow in San Mateo creek generally mirrors trends in precipitation. Yet, minor increases in precipitation are not always reflected in stream flow data. Both stream flow and precipitation peak in February. Stream flow and rainfall in San Mateo creek commonly vary from year to year. San Mateo creek experienced low stream flows in the late 1950’s, and the mid to late 1970’s. The highest stream flow occurred in 1968-1969 and 1997-1998 winter seasons. The peak stream flow throughout the year occurs in February, while low flow is characteristic of the summer and early fall. Precipitation peaked in the winter seasons of 1969/70 and 1997/98. Peak rainfall occurs in February and decreases sharply in the late spring and early summer. Little to no rainfall is observed in the summer months between July and October.

Endangered Species: The Southern California Steelhead

Five endangered species occur within the watershed: southern steelhead, arroyo toad, tidewater goby, least Bell's vireo, and southwestern willow flycatcher. Of these, the primary concern of this plan is the southern steelhead.

Southern California steelhead populations have decreased 95% from the early 1900's and are in immediate danger of extinction (Nehlsen et al. 1991). Historically San Mateo Creek supported rainbow trout and anadromous steelhead, different forms of the polymorphic species, Oncorhynchus mykiss. According to Moyle (1995), San Mateo Creek was historically one of the most productive streams for southern steelhead. In recent years, the presence of anadromous steelhead has again been confirmed in San Mateo Creek by the California Department of Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Southern California steelhead move upstream to spawn during the tail-end of winter storm events between January and March (Shapovalov and Taft 1954). Landlocked resident rainbow trout may also move great distances as a mechanism to survive the typical flood and drought cycle.

During spawning migrations, adult steelhead (and to a lesser extent landlocked rainbow trout) require adequate flows to navigate through shallow reaches and boulder cascades. Migrating steelhead also require pools and/or side channel areas for resting and refuge from high flows or dropping water levels. Resident rainbow trout also require deep pools in order to survive winter floods and summer droughts (Dunn 1981).

Spawning trout seek out low to moderate gradient alluvial channels with riffles or pool tails where gravels are plentiful and within a usable size range (1/4-3/4") and silts are minimal (<15-30% of volume) (Phillips et al. 1975). Stream flow must be adequate to maintain oxygen levels of at least 5 ppm (Bjornn and Reiser 1991) and temperatures between 3 and 20 degrees C (Bell 1986). North facing tributaries seem to have the best stream flows and cooler water temperatures extending later into the egg incubation and fry rearing periods, February through April. During this period, eggs and developing fry are extremely sensitive to adverse environmental conditions and mechanical damage. The prime spawning habitat is located in low gradient alluvial channels which naturally may go dry in summer or earlier in drought years.

Two or three weeks after fertilization the eggs hatch and emerge from the gravel as fry. Fry emergence is a time period when trout are highly sensitive to silt, water temperature, and fluctuations in flow (Phillips et al. 1975). Once hatched fry remain in shallow riffles and runs close to the spawning beds until they have grown enough in a month or so to actively migrate to more suitable and stable summer habitat.

Under natural conditions, summer water flow and temperature are likely the most limiting factors in steelhead and resident trout production. Steelhead/rainbow trout are thought to prefer temperatures between 10-13 degrees C (Bell 1986) and may die if exposed to temperatures above 25 degrees C (Charlon et al. 1970). Long term exposure to sub-lethal temperatures (14-25 degrees C) weaken trout and leave them more susceptible to disease and predation. Southern California steelhead/rainbow trout appear to survive under higher water temperatures and lower dissolved oxygen levels than other trout. It is unclear however whether they can better withstand heat or if they have developed ways to avoid it through microhabitat selection (Matthews 1994). In summer, steelhead and trout become increasingly clustered within deep thermally stratified pools, coolwater tributaries, and areas of coldwater spring or seep inflow. Fish may withstand adverse water chemistry (pH and dissolved oxygen) in order to remain in sublethal water temperatures. If adequate summer refuge habitat is not available or the fish can not get to it, entire year classes or populations may be lost.

Steelhead/rainbow trout feed on aquatic and terrestrial insects such as caddisflies, mayflies, stoneflies, and snails (Shapovalov and Taft, 1954). Adult steelhead may go off their feed during migrations but will resume feeding if they become landlocked for any length of time. Steelhead may also prey upon other smaller fish. There is no documentation of steelhead and rainbow trout feeding on bullfrogs within our area. Temperature extremes, siltation, and loss of riparian vegetation can lead to a reduction in the aquatic food base and overall health and survival. A premature loss of flow during the peak period of spring productivity can also affect insects, thus affecting fish.

Current Problems and Opportunities for Restoration

In its "Proposed Range Extension for Endangered Steelhead in Southern California, " the National Marine Fisheries Service identified increased groundwater extraction, loss of riparian vegetation, stream channel changes, surficial flow reductions, human-caused

fires, and the introduction of non-native predator species as the main threats to steelhead in the San Mateo Creek watershed. In particular, NMFS noted:

The control of exotic fish species in the San Mateo Creek watershed, both on Camp Pendleton and in Cleveland National Forest, is considered critical to restoring steelhead to that watershed (DFG, 2000; Lang et al., 1998). Lang et al., (1998) recommend implementation of measures …to control in-river propagation of exotics … in perennial pools during summer low flows.

These exotic animal species, including largemouth bass, brown bullhead, green sunfish bluegill, bullfrog, mosquito fish, red swamp crayfish and others named on California’s Aquatic Nuisance List are major predators of the native steelhead and partially armored threespine stickleback, and have invaded San Mateo Creek in large numbers.

However, unusually severe drought conditions have now reduced the water in the Creek to a limited number of pools separated by dry reaches of the streambed. The remaining exotic fish and amphibians in the watershed are now concentrated in the very limited area of these pools. Until the rains return in the winter, this condition presents a transitory opportunity to capture and remove these exotics from the Creek environment, and to block their re-invasion. As an initial step towards the longer-term goal of enhancing the watershed for native fish, a program of removing exotic species from the San Mateo Creek should be undertaken at the earliest opportunity. This project could test techniques for exotics control and collect information to provide a foundation for the long-term restoration of the watershed. At the same time a detailed plan for addressing the other factors limiting restoration of steelhead and other native fish should be developed.



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