Orange County -- On December 18, the federal Department of Commerce denied an appeal brought by Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) of a February 2008 ruling that an extension to the 241 toll route (“Toll Road”) in southern Orange County would violate the provisions of the Coastal Zone Management Act.
The Department of Commerce found that there is at least one viable alternative design for the project and that the Toll Road is not necessary for national security.
“This is great news for the endangered southern steelhead trout,” said longtime Trout Unlimited activist George Sutherland. “The Toll Road, as proposed, could be detrimental to steelhead and our habitat restoration efforts in San Mateo Creek. Now, as we move forward, we invite TCA to work directly with us to ensure that the project’s new route and design are more ‘fish-friendly.’”
Sutherland added, “Traffic between Orange County and San Diego is bad, but our response shouldn’t create more problems than it solves by destroying what little open space we have left in this area. We need some green places on the map, and clean water in our streams, so that our kids and grandkids can have the experience of finding, and maybe even catching, native California trout in their historic range.”
Trout Unlimited, through its South Coast Chapter, has been working for more than a decade in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Game, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the California Coastal Conservancy, and others to bring back the southern steelhead to its native waters in Orange and San Diego Counties. These waters include San Mateo Creek and San Juan/Trabuco Creek. San Mateo Creek, in particular, provides still-viable steelhead habitat. TCA’s proposed design for the Toll Road would have built a highway interchange directly through the estuary on San Mateo Creek, where young steelhead must reside for months in order to acclimatize themselves to salt water.
San Mateo Creek is also the last wild, undammed drainage in Southern California, and offers the best refuge in this region for steelhead and other aquatic species as climate change brings hotter and drier conditions.
Steelhead are a unique form of rainbow trout. Like salmon, they spend most of their adult lives in the ocean, but spawn in freshwater streams. Southern steelhead are adapted to seasonally dry streams in the arid climate at the extreme southern end of the steelhead range. Tens of thousands of steelhead – prized by fishermen for their strength and beauty -- used to return to southern California streams annually, but now they’re stopped by dams, water diversions, and urban development. Today, only a few hundred southern steelhead return to their natal streams to spawn each year. The National Marine Fisheries Service listed the southern steelhead as an endangered species in 1997. After steelhead were discovered in San Mateo Creek in 2002, the Fisheries Service extended the endangered listing into Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties. The Service reaffirmed the endangered status of southern steelhead in 2005.
Trout Unlimited is the nation’s oldest and largest coldwater fisheries conservation organization,
with over 150,000 members nationwide and 10,000 members in California.