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Blog Post · June 28, 2023

Saving Steelhead—and Stitching a Community Back Together

This post is the second in a series on community engagement in river restoration projects in California, funded by the 2022–23 PPIC CalTrout Ecosystem Fellowship. Stay tuned for a look at restoration efforts on the Eel and San Joaquin rivers.

photo - Rainbow Trout Fishing on the Trabuco Creek in California

Near the small town of San Juan Capistrano in Southern California, a small creek—crisscrossed by five bridges transporting hundreds of thousands of vehicles and dozens of commuter trains each month—is about to undergo a transformation.

The creek is known as Trabuco, named for an old-fashioned firearm lost there in the 18th century. And it just might hold the key to the survival of California’s endangered Southern steelhead.

map - Trabuco Creek

The first human inhabitants of the land were the Acjachemen (pronounced a-há-che-men); archaeological evidence suggests the Acjachemen have been present in the area for over 10,000 years. The creek provided the raw materials for their lives: shellfish, eel, trout, and game for food and deergrass, juncus rush, and sumac seeds for weaving coiled baskets.

But European contact and colonization decimated the Acjachemen. Land was seized and repurposed. Dams, diversions, and bridges blocked the passage of aquatic species in the river. The concrete bases of the massive bridges—built for Interstate 5 and a commuter railway—severed the creek’s headwaters from the ocean. Once-abundant fish populations dwindled, and the steelhead trapped in the creek’s upper reaches—unable to migrate back down to the ocean—became the non-migratory form of the species, which resides only in freshwater: rainbow trout.

Now, thousands of people pass over the creek every day at high speed—oblivious to the creek’s history, and even its existence.

Healing a creek

It turns out that destroying a waterway is easier than restoring it. And as restoration projects go, Trabuco Creek is fairly complicated.

The goal was to give these migratory fish access to the headwaters again by building fish passage around the two main barriers in their way. But such an endeavor is tougher than it sounds. More than a dozen federal, state, and local agencies have taken an interest in the creek—primarily for reasons of public safety and mobility. Among them: the Orange County Flood Control District, the City of San Juan Capistrano, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, and a veritable alphabet soup of others.

Designing fish passages that would work was one hurdle. But bringing together these disparate communities and stakeholders was the next. It has taken an extraordinary, years-long effort to get this restoration project moving.

And in many ways, it has worked: the project is a paragon of community engagement. Families who lived along the creek were engaged. The equestrians who rode their horses on Creekside trails got involved. A multitude of government agencies had a place at the table. With careful stewardship first by the NGO Trout Unlimited and later by CalTrout, which took over the project in 2017, the NGOs got people to the table and found ways to work together.

Time and capacity were key. CalTrout cultivated relationships over time, and they had capacity to do it, including staff and dedicated funding for public outreach. And they shared knowledge, organizing quarterly tours of the restoration site that brought together everyone from citizen scientists and equestrians to local politicians.

The listing of Southern steelhead as federally endangered in 1997 further emphasized the urgency to protect this iconic species. The result is that, in a few years, restoration of fish passage at the Interstate 5 bridge array and the Metrolink bridge will bring steelhead back to habitat they’ve been estranged from for over a century.

Missing voices

From one angle, Trabuco Creek exemplifies what it looks like to do restoration right. But one voice was missing for years: that of the Acjachemen.

Tribes are invaluable partners for restoration efforts. Over millennia, indigenous groups in California and throughout the US developed sophisticated systems of understanding and managing their environment. These systems helped support resilient, productive ecosystems—which in turn sustained rich and diverse cultures, with renowned traditions of craftsmanship, storytelling, spiritual practices, and song.

Colonization disrupted indigenous ecosystem management and cultural transmission. But traditional ecological knowledge is experiencing a resurgence in parts of the state, where scientists and lawmakers are finally recognizing the value of indigenous stewardship in river restoration and wildfire prevention, among other things. Although often under-resourced and wary of demands from outsiders, tribes are proving to be essential partners in restoration efforts.

Recovering lost knowledge is difficult—but not impossible. In addition to the stories passed down within the tribe, the Acjachemen have another unusual resource: in the early 1800s, a Franciscan named Friar Geronimo Boscana transcribed some of the tribe’s customs and stories. And now the tribe has created the village of Putuidem, a demonstration village that recreates a vision of tribal customs and lifeways before colonization. CalTrout is gaining a deeper understanding of the indigenous presence and history in the watershed through a growing relationship with Joyce Stanfield Perry, the Cultural Resources Director for the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians – Acjachemen Nation.

Although this collaboration is in its infancy, it points to a growing shift within restoration efforts: the recognition that involving the first stewards of a landscape in restoration is vital to a project’s success. And the stakes are high: Perry says that when it comes to the relationship between Trabuco Creek and the Acjachemen, “Water is life. Any form of water source is sacred energy that we cannot live without, nor can our fish relatives or all the other relatives that live in the water.”

The idea of “relatives” resonates: the common denominator linking all these constituents is the steelhead. The steelhead’s demise has not just necessitated the reconnection of a fragmented creek—it has also offered the opportunity for the reconnection of deeply divided groups of people. Disparate agencies with competing priorities are now in relationship with each other, and many hope that the Acjachemen will be the final keystone that will help renew a fragmented ecosystem.


California rivers climate change ecosystem restoration ecosystem restoration community engagement endangered species Freshwater Ecosystems Water, Land & Air wildlife