Giving steelhead trout room to roam on Pismo Creek

The fish ladder on Pismo Creek when the creek is low.
The fish ladder on Pismo Creek when the creek is low.

Central Coast Salmon Enhancement is in a race against time.

With the backing of several state wildlife agencies, the fisheries enhancement group is working to reach an agreement with an oil company that owns a Price Canyon oil field to allow completion of a fish passage project on Pismo Creek.

“We have until the end of the year to get it done,” said Stephanie Wald, the group’s watershed projects manager. “If we miss the deadline, we’ll have to reapply for the money.”

The money is a $2 million package of grants from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Wildlife Conservation Board to pay for construction of a passage that will allow steelhead trout to get past a barrier in Pismo Creek that blocks their access to spawning areas upstream.

Steelhead are a trout species that spend most of their lives at sea but return to coastal streams and rivers to spawn. Steelhead in San Luis Obispo County’s creeks are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The barrier is a culvert beneath a railroad overcrossing near  Price Canyon Road and Corral de Piedra Road six miles south of San Luis Obispo. Erosion has caused an 11-foot drop-off on the downstream side of the culvert that is insurmountable to fish.

“Over the years, several fish ladders were installed, but they never really did the trick,” Wald said.

Barriers such as the one in Pismo Creek are one of the main reasons steelhead are struggling along the Central Coast. They greatly reduce the areas that steelhead can use for spawning.

For example, the Pismo Creek barrier is just downstream of the confluence of the east and west branches of Corral de Piedra creeks with Pismo Creek. The project would give steelhead access to an additional five to eight miles of good spawning habitat, Wald said.

Plans call for construction of a gradually sloping in-stream channel that will allow steelhead to overcome the barrier by jumping through a series of rock-lined pools. The jump from one pool to the next would be no higher than 6 inches.

This step-pool design is approved by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and has been used successfully at Coon Creek, which runs along the southern boundary of Montaña de Oro State Park.

The holdup is an agreement that Houston-based Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas must sign giving access to the site for the next 25 years to monitor the project. The oil company also has liability concerns, Wald said.

Several other factors are also complicating the agreement. Freeport-McMoRan is the new owner of the Price Canyon oil field, having purchased it earlier this year from Plains Exploration and Production Co.

The company is also busy planning an expansion of the oil field. It has applied to the county to add as many as 350 new oil wells that will boost production of the field from 5,000 barrels per day to 9,000 barrels per day.

As a result, the access agreement is probably low on the company’s list of priorities, Wald said. The oil company itself is noncommittal about whether the Dec. 31 deadline will be met.

“We are currently reviewing the access agreement and that’s all I can say,” said Michelle Gibbs, a biologist for the company.

For its part, Central Coast Salmon Enhancement remains optimistic that a deal can be struck in time.

“Our relationship with the company is good,” Wald said. “We just want to see this move forward as expeditiously as possible so that all parties’ needs are met, and I think we can do that.”

If an agreement can be reached, construction of the fish passage would be done over a three-month period in the summer.

“The bottom line is that the sooner we get the project done, the sooner we can see if it has the desired effect,” Wald said.