Bay Nature magazineSummer 2019


A Trout Reclaims a River

June 23, 2019

A year ago, Stanford University began removing the 120-year-old Lagunita Diversion Dam on San Francisquito Creek, which flows through Palo Alto and Menlo Park. As a result, last spring was the first migration season in over a century wherein California steelhead trout, populations of which are listed as endangered or threatened by the federal government, could swim through the area without obstruction. The fish enter from the southwestern San Francisco Bay and must swim over six miles before reaching the former dam site. 

Owned by Stanford University, the dam long ago stopped supplying the irrigation water it was probably originally designed to provide, but it impeded the migrating steelhead from reaching their spawning grounds upstream.

In 2014, the environmental groups Our Children’s Earth Foundation and Ecological Rights Foundation sued Stanford, charging that it was violating the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. The suit belongs to a larger, nationwide effort to remove old dams and bring back sea-migrating, freshwater-spawning fish. 

Whether the suit actually sped up the removal of the Lagunita Diversion Dam is up for debate. Jerry Hearn, a watershed volunteer who’s been working on restoring the creek since the 1990s, thinks the suit actually slowed things down. But he’s thrilled with what Stanford has done. The university invested millions in designing the newly undammed waterway so that it resembled a natural creek, and it shows, he says. It features numerous (constructed) pools of slow-moving water that make it easier for fish to travel upstream. “I could see the amount of thought and energy that had gone into it,’’ he said of a recent visit. “It was fabulous.” 

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