New Way to Save the Fish

TANKS FOR THE WATER Jack Gifford, seen with CHEER's founder Herman Garcia, will have a consistent supply of clean water, thanks to a project that helps residents along Little Arthur Creek who depend on creek water and preserves habitat for young steelhead

A Gilroy group has teamed with a national organization and the government to help fish and folks thrive along a stretch of creek whose waters and trout end up in the ocean.

Coastal Habitat Education and Environmental Restoration, or CHEER, and the 150,000-member Trout Unlimited, based in Arlington, Virginia, have completed the first of a dozen installations of water storage tanks along Little Arthur Creek near the eastern base of Mt. Madonna County Park.

The tanks are designed to help preserve natural creek pools prone to drying up after young steelhead trout hatch, while offering property owners dependent on iffy wells and unreliable creek water systems a year-round supply of good water.

Taken in part from a similar project a decade ago in Northern California, if successful the idea could become a valuable tool in preserving in-stream water flows and fisheries that suffer during the dry season, according to CHEER founder Herman Garcia.

For each fish that survives the dry season and makes it to the ocean and back to the Little Arthur, 5,000 to 10,000 eggs will be produced when they spawn, he said.

Before the project, CHEER volunteers each year were rescuing an average of 3,500 trapped fish—called fry—from pools that dry up from resident water use just in that short stretch of the creek, releasing them downstream to sections that are still habitable.

In the project area, and downstream, “the system does not sustain enough water for them to survive,” Garcia said.

It was in 2009, the 50th anniversary of its founding, that Trout Unlimited and CHEER held the first meeting for residents along Little Arthur Creek, most with addresses on Redwood Retreat Road, in rural western Gilroy.

TU identified the tributary of Uvas Creek in the Pajaro River watershed as likely to benefit from a pilot program called the Coastal Streamflow Stewardship Project, according to its literature.

Its goal was to “improve water flow and conditions in late spring, summer and fall for the purpose of enhancing habitat for steelhead [trout] while meeting the needs of local residents who also depend on water from the creek,” residents were told.

The project was grounded in the philosophy that “groups of users can cooperatively manage water diversions to achieve more cumulative protection and more cost-effective results than any water user could achieve alone,” according to the letter sent to residents.

Thirteen residents attended a meeting on June 17 that year. Six years later, in 2015, the first system went online on the Gifford property.

Jack and Rita Gifford now have something they have not had since buying their country home more than 50 years ago on the banks of the Little Arthur: a consistent, reliable source of clean water all year long for drinking, laundry, showering and irrigation of outdoor plants.

Before, they had to drink and cook with water that reeked of sulphur, shower fast before the water ran out and lost plants and trees when the creek went dry. They had little luck with wells; the last one produced less than 50 gallons every 24 hours.

“I appreciate this water beyond how I could ever explain it,” said Jack Gifford, 83, a retired San Jose State University Information Technology professor. “The joy and happiness of taking a shower, getting in and just being consciously aware that this water is not going to run out before I finish,” he said.

When years ago Gifford watched the CHEER truck approach and heard Garcia suggest that he take part in a new-fangled water preservation effort, he was ready to listen.

So impressive is the new installation that TU last week sent a crew to film the project and landowners.

Assisting TU and CHEER with years of preliminary studies were the California Fish and Wildlife Department, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Gifford called the project, “worthy work that deserves not to be impeded.”

Matt Clifford, a TU attorney based in Emeryville, said that when the organization looked for other creeks after the Mattole River project, that “Little Arthur was the obvious choice because of the steelhead and the small number of landowners involved,” he said.

He called CHEER the ideal partner because of its success in restoring steelhead habitat and Garcia’s contacts with landowners.

“It’s all about relationships; it has to work for people and for the fish,” Clifford said.

To get results, CHEER and TU installed eight 5,000-gallon tanks and a pumping and filtering system between the Giffords’ house and the creek.

The massive tank installation includes pumps that pull water during the wet season from the creek through filtering systems and into the tanks. From there it goes through a chlorine purification tank and, when needed in dry months, in pipes to the house so the Giffords do not have to pump water from the dwindling creek supply and can leave it for the fish.

When the project is completed with 11 or 12 installations, the cost will be about $1 million, Clifford said, all funded by the California Coastal Conservancy, the Fish and Wildlife Department and the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Garcia said that while the project is not yet proven, it has worked on the Mattole River and he believes it will work on the Little Arthur and will provide benefits for property owners, fish, those who enjoy fishing, conservation groups and the environment.  

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