Garlic Fest’s $54K a fishy fix?

A row of gravel borders a trail at Christmas Hill Park and Glen

The Gilroy Garlic Festival has spent nearly $54,000 to meet
government mandates to protect a threatened species of trout.
The Gilroy Garlic Festival has spent nearly $54,000 to meet government mandates to protect a threatened species of trout.

But there are no studies to validate that the 500 tons of granite rock placed to protect Uvas Creek near Christmas Hill Park have made a significant difference in the South-Central California Coast steelhead population.

Despite the lack of study, Jonathan Ambrose, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the logic is sound.

“We don’t just pull it out of a hat, so to speak,” Ambrose said of the locations that have sediment control requirements. “We’re concerned not just from the aspect of they’re not supposed to put sediment in the creek, but the amount going into creek, we believe, is deleterious.”

Brian Bowe, the executive director of the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association, said. “The (Garlic Festival) Board is certainly going to do whatever we are required to do to be a good neighbor, but it’s unfortunate that we have to spend money on these types of activities when we would prefer to be using it for volunteers and local charities and nonprofits.”

Gilroy’s signature event, held the last full weekend each July, attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year and supports hundreds of community organizations. More than $8.5 million has been plowed back into community groups.

Festival funds have been tapped along with money from the City of Gilroy and Glen Loma Group. The total bill to protect the fish habitat over the last two years is about $100,000, according to developer Jim Filice of Glen Loma.

Like ancient miniature Celtic walls, granite rock piles snake their way around the plateau west of Christmas Hill Park that serves as the Gilroy Garlic Festival’s parking lot each year. The area includes portions of the city park where plastic tarps stretched between wooden stakes dot the landscape.

The rock piles, the tarp “silt fence” and the “straw logs” aim to keep dirt and other materials out of Uvas Creek below in order to spare the steelhead’s gills and facilitate spawning.

Herman Garcia, president of the local environmental group Coastal Habitat Education and Environmental Restoration, brought the issue to the attention of the state Department of Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2007.

Glen Loma Group owns the land adjacent to Christmas Hill Park, where thousands of cars are parked each year for the three-day festival.

The land is slated for housing development when the economy turns around. The 354-acre, 1,700-home Glen Loma Ranch project will get off the ground. Meanwhile, Glen Loma Group is shelling out money to protect the fish.

“We don’t like to spend money on this and we don’t like to make the Garlic Festival do it, but we’ve got to take care of the land,” Filice said.

He was notified by Garcia that sediment was getting washed into the creek following heavy rains.

The City of Gilroy and Glen Loma have contributed about $6,000 each toward a concrete barrier that will reduce silt in runoff, city Development Center Manager Kristi Abrams said. The barrier was supposed to be installed Tuesday, but this week’s rains have caused delays.

Besides the 500 tons of rock that is also placed across old farm roads that lead from the plateau down toward Uvas Creek, the money has paid for nearly two miles of silt fencing.

Garcia says Filice has been on board with the mission of his CHEER organization since day one.

“Right from the get-go, when there was a problem with erosion, Tim jumped on it immediately – the same day,” Garcia said.

Filice said Glen Loma Group wants to be “good citizens” but he also stressed that the erosion control measures were mandatory.

Filice said the silt fence has had its problems. Vandals on all-terrain vehicles have knocked down parts of the fence, allowing water and silt to flow freely, and parts of the plastic tarp have been “tagged” with graffiti.

Filice plans to have contractors install a vegetative buffer to help with erosion, a measure recommended by the National Resources Conservation Service, he said.

In addition, contractors have placed a silt fence inside some of the rock berms. The rocks in the berms are helpful because they slow down the flow of water and capture some of the sediment.

“We can’t hold back the water, but what we can do is exercise our best efforts,” Filice said.

Ambrose says the Garlic Festival isn’t being asked to do anything different from any other major construction project along the creek.

Uvas Creek runs about 25 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the most important tributaries for the South-Central California Coast Steelhead, Ambrose said. The creek begins in the Santa Cruz mountains and flows to the west of Calero Reservoir and branches out into Little Uvas Creek. It flows into Uvas Reservoir and continues for about 12 miles until it becomes Carnadero Creek south of Gilroy.

There are several genetically different varieties of steelhead found in California, and each occupies different habitats, Ambrose said. Sediment can damage a steelhead’s gills and cover fish eggs, preventing them from getting oxygen and hatching. Insects, which serve as the fish’s food supply, also prefer to live in clear water, he said.

There have been no studies of Uvas Creek that prove that the sediment control measures on their own have made a difference in the fish population, Ambrose acknowledged.

South-Central California Coast steelhead numbers have dwindled over the years from annual runs totaling 25,000 spawning adults to about 500 today, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Henry Coletto, a former fish and game warden for Santa Clara County, said groups such as the Garlic Festival are made as examples, but that the amount of silt they contribute to the creek is “minute.”

Farming practices and major housing developments cause far more siltation, he said. Farm bureaus help by hosting courses on ways to reduce sediment from ending up in waterways, but there is rarely any follow-up with growers who participate, he said.

Coletto believes agencies need to issue more citations to farmers and developers. In addition, the rock berms will need to be cleaned to prevent sediment runoff, he said.

“The creek’s running blood red right now full of siltation,” he said.

Ambrose said he believes sediment issues account for about 20 percent of the problem.

Other issues that endanger the stout steelhead include the damming of Uvas Creek – which prevents the fish from getting to their historical spawning grounds and inhibits travel by lowering water levels – as well as changes in land use, an increase in people living next to the creek, chemical spills and creeks going dry in the summer.

CHEER rescued 1,482 of the fish in 2007, a whopping 23,512 in 2008 and 2,550 in 2009. Garcia believes the sediment efforts are making a difference. Ambrose verified Garcia’s figures, and said population fluctuations also could be attributed to a host of factors, such as annual rainfall.

Members of CHEER approached Ambrose in 2006 to learn about ways that they could help. Ambrose said finding Garcia was like discovering a “gold mine.”

In addition to the current interim work on culverts, the city will likely implement some permanent measures this summer, Haglund said.

Meanwhile, the Garlic Festival already has cut costs by forbidding parking in the most environmentally sensitive areas, Bowe said.

Even if the Garlic Festival’s efforts only make a dent in Uvas Creek’s siltation problem and takes money away from festival volunteers, Garcia says that it still is benefiting the community. He notes that the group is often out rescuing steelhead at the time of the festival.

“CHEER is an all-volunteer organization,” Garcia said. “We have no paid staff, and we have dozens of volunteers and hundreds that want to volunteer for CHEER that want to address problems with their natural resources.”

The economy is linked to the environment, he said, as no one wants to live by polluted waterways.

“This is why it’s important to protect our natural resources,” Garcia said. “This is why the steelhead is important to Gilroy.”

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