NOAA and partners speed up restoration projects for protected fish

August 2016

NOAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are accelerating review of habitat restoration projects in California that benefit South-Central and Southern California Coast steelhead, which face increased challenges from the ongoing California drought.

The permitting process required for organizations undertaking habitat restoration projects can be lengthy. To better promote steelhead recovery, the NOAA Restoration Center (NOAA RC) along with guidance from Sustainable Conservation has partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region to develop strategies that will streamline the permitting process.

Steelhead spawning habitat within the upper gorge of the Santa Margarita River north of Oceanside, California. Photo: Mark Capelli, NOAA

The NOAA RC promotes habitat restoration activities, while NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region reviews and permits restoration that may affect species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The key strategy for streamlining the permitting process is what’s called a programmatic consultation, which assesses broad categories of restoration actions for threatened and endangered species and their critical habitats. This approach can save project applicants and partner agencies millions of dollars in staff time by avoiding individual ESA consultations for each proposed project. The approach also paves the way for critical recovery actions identified in state and Federal recovery plans to proceed more quickly.

In California, Sustainable Conservation, a unique environmental non-profit organization, helps walk restoration partners through the programmatic consultation process with the goal of accelerating restoration for the benefit of fish species.

An Adult steelhead in Mission Creek near Santa Barbara, California. Photo: Mark Capelli, NOAA

One of the first projects reviewed under the new process released earlier this year targets Los Osos Creek in San Luis Obispo County for restoration.

The Los Osos Creek project will restore and enhance 0.2 acres of habitat for threatened South-Central California Coast steelhead. Project partners plan to restore native plants and instream habitat features, which will help reduce erosion of the river bank. The restoration project will also enhance habitat for spawning and juvenile steelhead by changing the grade and slope of the stream bottom and creating terraces that allow the fish to rest while they grow.

An adult steelhead in Pajaro River located north of Monterey, California. Photo: Mark Capelli, NOAA

The California Coastal Commission adopted a similar approach to help streamline its permitting for restoration projects. Organizations receiving funding or technical assistance from the NOAA RC will no longer have to obtain a development permit from the Commission.

“We now have state-wide coverage in California for restoration activities within NOAA’s Community-based Restoration Program. Restoration projects are essentially pre-approved by the California Coastal Commission under this new agreement,” said Stacie Smith, NOAA RC biologist.

The streamlined permitting will help build on significant restoration projects already underway. Removal of fish passage barriers and other habitat restoration efforts have already enhanced migratory opportunities in critical watersheds. For instance, the removal of San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River and recent progress on the removal of Matilija Dam on the Ventura River will restore access to these once highly productive steelhead watersheds.

The streamlined permitting process comes at a critical time for these steelhead species. A recent status review of South-Central and Southern California Coast steelhead by the NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center concluded that these species remain at very low numbers. Their status has not appreciably changed since 2005 when NOAA Fisheries first issued recovery plans.

Biologists say that permit streamlining is an important step in accelerating recovery actions, but note that there are still more barriers to overcome. The recent status review recommended new actions including increased monitoring and prioritizing recovery activities to also address the impacts of climate change and the prolonged drought.


South-Central/Southern Steelhead Recovery Plan

Steelhead trout

Status Reviews: Steelhead and Salmon

Home Page Photo: An adult steelhead in Pajaro River located north of Monterey, California. Photo: Mark Capelli, NOAA