Drought threatens fish in Santa Clara County creeks

Editor’s note: This story is part of the annual Mosaic Journalism Workshop for Bay Area high school students, a two-week intensive course in journalism. Students in the program report and photograph real stories under the guidance of professional journalists.

Susy Ferreira, a Santa Clara County resident, was recently taking her regular stroll along the Los Gatos Creek trail and discovered 30 dead fish lying on the creek.

“I was in shock,” Ferreira said. “There was one fish and another and another and a horrible smell.”

Dead fish are photographed in the dry Los Gatos Creek Trail in San Jose, California on Monday, June 21, 2021. (Photographed by Susy Ferreira/ Special to Mosaic) 

For over two years, Santa Clara County has been facing below-average rainfall and extreme weather, causing a decrease in the reservoirs that keep the creeks full, according to the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Both the creeks and fish are suffering as a result.

Jae Abel, a biologist at the water district, said water is stored in the reservoirs during the wet season and is released during the dry season to maintain steady streamflow. This has lessened during the drought.

“No reservoirs were spilling this last winter that I’m aware of, and most of them entered the dry season at very much reduced storage. So we’re really watching every drop in a bucket of water that comes out of those reservoirs,” Abel said.

The water district says that as of now, there is not enough water to support the fish. The district is only able to release a small amount of water from the reservoirs into the creeks, just enough to keep them wet. It is expected that wildlife dependent on the creeks will have to adapt to the severe weather conditions and move upstream, or perish.

The water district is limited with how they can help the fish, since relocation may create additional problems.

“If you were to try to save fish, where would you put them? Where can you guarantee that there’s going to be water?” Abel said. “And on top of that, what is already in that existing water? Are you going to be creating a crowd? Are you going to be moving diseases, what fish are you going to move or are they going to compete with each other?”

Steve Holmes, founder and executive director of South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition, believes there’s an upside to the drying creeks: It has become easier to clear them of pollutants.

“The waterways have dried up so we have access to really do a thorough cleaning of a lot of this toxic trash,” Holmes said.

The South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition focuses on aiding the creeks and rivers in the Santa Clara Valley. Currently it has several open projects that aim to preserve the native wildlife in local creeks, such as clearing out toxic waste.

Holmes said dry creeks are also killing off invasive fish that harm native species like the chinook salmon and the young steelhead fry.

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