A Creek Defies the Odds- page 2 | Science | Smithsonian

A Creek Defies the Odds

Thanks to 300 volunteers, steelhead are back again, despite highways, offices and a campus

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The sewage problem has been partly solved by the opening of a shelter in a Veterans Administration hospital. But the volunteers face other challenges. Plant-loving homeowners have introduced foreign plant specimens of all varieties, and some of these intruders have run wild. One of the most hardy and tenacious is an ornamental from South Africa, German ivy, which climbs up tree trunks and breaks off the branches, dragging them to the ground and destroying the stream's shade cover. If too much shade cover is lost along the San Francisquito, water temperatures could rise to a degree hostile to steelhead and the entire stream community.

Home gardeners also lace their lawns and flower beds with fertilizers and pesticides, some of which inevitably run off into streams. They drain the chlorinated water from their swimming pools into the creeks, oblivious to the harmful effects. Upstream in the foothills, horse manure from riding stables ends up in the water.

Public education has been a major thrust of the restoration effort. The group has developed a manual of native plants to be distributed to property owners, along with instructions for uprooting the interlopers. Other literature has described more benign fertilizers.

Education, however, is only half the battle. Thus, on a balmy September Sunday, we volunteers converge again along the San Francisquito and its tributaries for a cleanup day. We bypass the inhabited homeless encampments, but zero in on debris elsewhere in the creekbed. A couple of strong Silicon Valley engineers equipped with ropes haul abandoned shopping carts up the steep banks. Other volunteers fill plastic bags with trash, being careful not to disturb natural obstacles like fallen tree branches that could serve as shelter for fish life.

Our main target, however, is the ubiquitous German ivy on the banks, and it proves an implacable foe. Yanking the shallow-rooted stuff out of the ground isn't difficult, we find. The tough part is getting rid of it. You can't just pile it up and expect the plant to die; the ivy will quickly put down roots and thrive again. Vines and leaves have to be carefully crammed into garbage bags to be transported to the town sanitary landfill, and we are continually warned against dropping even a single branch, which could initiate a comeback.

There is still plenty of work ahead, Debbie Mytels tells me. Fish ladders on both Los Trancos and San Francisquito creeks are being restored. When the rains come again, trained volunteers will return to the streams to continue monitoring the changes in sediment, channel elevation and chemical content. "People drive over this creek every day and don't notice it," Debbie says. "We want to make it a community project, a part of local lives."

By Edwin Kiester, Jr.

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