If We Unbuild It, They Will Come

Matt Stoecker
Kid's Fall 2010

High up in the mountains where steep canyon walls meet, submerged in a cold and clear flowing stream, a pocket of orange-pink eggs lies protected among the colorful gravel. Small eyes and a long skinny body move within one of the translucent shells. The egg shakes with life, then a crack appears in the shell and golden eyes emerge and peer out. The small rainbow trout swims away from the now lifeless shell.

After two years, as winter flows subside, the trout gets the urge for something more. Followed by others, the trout lets the swift current pull it downstream away from its home and the trout that decide to stay behind.

Down rapids and over small waterfalls, the trout suddenly enters an artificial reservoir. The trout swims around the large, still body of stagnant water looking for a way downstream. Flows spill out over a concrete wall that rises from the depths of the reservoir and the trout slides over the lip and plunges hundreds of feet through the air, smacking onto the water’s surface below. Almost unconscious and lucky to be alive, the trout slowly revives in the shadow of a massive dam and recovers just in time to dart away from a large bass that emerges at full speed from the deep pool. The bass is a non-native intruder here and only survives because of the artificial stillwater habitat created by the dam. The trout quickly moves downstream and is happy to be playfully riding the current again.

At a lagoon, where the river and sea intertwine, the trout spends some time becoming acclimated to the brackish water and feeding on the abundance of food. Its once colorful body has become bright silver, grown to almost a foot in length, and is now prepared for the salty journey ahead. Bursting across the shallow sandbar and through the pounding surf, the trout glides into the deep blue of the ocean. Migrating thousands of miles across the Pacific, the hungry predator gorges on the bounty of the sea and dodges similar predators like tuna, seals, dolphins and orcas.

Over a year passes and the trout is now a large, full-grown steelhead that's bulked up to about 15 pounds by feeding on rich ocean nutrients. It feels a strong urge to return home, to upper Matilija Creek. Navigating by sun and star and reading the magnetic pull of the earth, the trout locates its way back to the southern coast of California and begins to smell out the many watersheds releasing their winter flows and distinct geological message to the coastal waters. Finally, the steelhead smells the unique scent of its natal stream, deeply imprinted within from its youth. The steelhead rides the next wave in, fins across the sandbar, and powers upstream against the current. At each confluence of streams, the fish turns up the one with the smell of home, upper Matilija Creek. Around the next bend, at a large, familiar pool, other steelhead are gathered. Something is wrong. Their heads and bodies are scarred and exhausted. The steelhead jumps high into the air against the falling water, its head crashes into the concrete dam, and its stunned body falls rejected back into the pool. There is no way home this year. But, as the steelhead turns to head back to the ocean in defeat, the fish gives one backward look at the dam it fell from as a youngster. Something is different. The concrete wall has gotten smaller. People are removing huge chunks of concrete from the dam across Matilija Canyon. There is hope for next year.

Free-flowing streams are the lifeblood of our land. Historically, over 50,000 steelhead, carrying over half a million pounds of ocean nutrients, migrated up Southern California streams each year and spread this bounty throughout our watersheds – feeding bears, eagles, cougars and the Chumash people. Today, migration barriers such as dams have blocked this critical annual migration to many watersheds and devastated steelhead populations to less than one percent of historic numbers. The loss of this relationship between land and sea, in the form of steelhead, has eliminated a critical ecological function in our region and beyond. Removing these migration barriers is the first essential step to restoring these vital indicators of watershed health.

On the Ventura River, the home stream of Patagonia’s headquarters, the planned removal of Matilija Dam and restoration of Matilija Canyon will accomplish a steelhead and watershed revival. The developing project is ambitious and complex. The local community wants Matilija Canyon restored with the dam removal and is, at the same time, concerned about a newly proposed alternative that involves cement and permanent storage of fine sediment upstream of the dam. This alternative would compromise the ecosystem and recreation objectives of the project. Get involved and learn more about the history and planning process for Matilija Dam removal and activities on the Ventura River at matilija-coalition.org and venturariver.org.

About the Author

Matt Stoecker is a restoration ecologist for whom the distinction between work and play is blurry: rock-hopping creeks loaded with surveying gear, snorkeling and studying trout populations, assessing habitat conditions, restoring migratory access for steelhead and, on the rare occasion, blowing up a dam. Since his first wildlife restoration project at age ten, Matt’s passion has been to explore and better understand the natural world, prioritize restoration opportunities and, most importantly, take action to spearhead dozens of projects that have restored steelhead trout habitat and migratory access to the watersheds we both call home.