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[whitespace] Los Gatos Creek
Christopher Gardner

Stream Consciousness

San Jose--Next week, construction crews will tear concrete slabs out of the bed of Guadalupe River Creek to ease the exhausting upstream swim fish make each year in order to spawn. By the year 2000, miniature climbing ladders, shade trees and an extra helping of water will likely follow--all new enhancements to turn the creek back into a healthy fish habitat.

Whether spurred by a guilty conscience, fear of legal consequences or a general change of heart, the Santa Clara Valley Water District has developed a new policy to improve relations with its scaly friends in waterways throughout the valley.

"The old way of thinking was that water released [down stream] into the bay was wasted," says Melanie Richardson of the district.

But after hearing from citizens and other public agencies for the past several years, Richardson says, the district became aware that it needed to factor fish into its decisions.

"We've moved away from being just a flood control and water management agency, to having a responsibility for environmental stewardship of the stream," Richardson says.

To the best of Richardson's recollection, this summer was the first time in water district history that water continuously spilled from the reservoirs solely for the purpose of keeping fish alive. Never before has so much valuable water--enough for 2,400 families for an entire year--been "spent" exclusively for fish.

This marked an important change: the Santa Clara Valley Water District has tossed off its bad-boy attitude--that protecting fish isn't its job--in favor of a more flexible approach towards life in the streams.

Three legal threats since 1995 might have had something to do with the change of heart. Under California Fish and Game law, organizations that dam water must regulate water flow in such a way that benefits the fish in the creeks downstream. In 1995, a lawsuit was filed against the water district charging that it ignored this responsibility by allowing the Guadalupe River to dry up. The suit was settled when the water district agreed to come up with a fish-friendly game plan, says SCVWD attorney Tony Bennetti.

But the following year, another complaint was filed with the state water board--similarly alleging that the SCVWD ruthlessly watched as streams dried, and accusing the district of violating other Fish and Game codes. To avoid testifying before the board, the water district took action.

Mike DiMarco, spokesman for the district, says his agency decided to take a proactive position.

"We approached Fish and Game and said, 'look, no matter what the water board decides, we're always going to be taking conflicting positions. So how about taking an comprehensive look at all of our operations,'" DiMarco says.

Fish and Game eagerly jumped on board, as did six other local and environmental organizations. The Fisheries and Aquatic Habitat Collaborative Effort (FAHCE) was formed, with the goal of releasing an action plan for the water district by 2000. "We made the decision that we didn't want to fight that or go to court, we wanted to come up with solutions," Richardson says.

But one year later, perhaps unable to contain itself, the water district had a final illicit endeavor, and intentionally allowed Los Gatos Creek to dry up. The move was short lived. Within hours, the county's chief environmental prosecutor, Will Richmond, marched down to the creek and ordered that water be released into the creek. Since then, the water district has been a law--abiding public citizen, working hard on the collaborative plan.

Last week, the group was awarded a $178,000 Cal-Fed grant to remove barriers from the Guadalupe River Creek. This project will begin Sept. 28. It will be the first in a series of interim actions the collaborative will take, so that the fish don't have to wait until the group's plan is completed in 2000.

"It all comes down to the same bottom line, that people feel fish should have a higher stake in water use in the Santa Clara Valley," says DiMarco. "We need to try and balance wildlife's need for water with people's need for water."
Cecily Barnes

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