For Gary Strawn, one prime indicator of the menacing intensity of the 2014 drought — and the health of San Diego County’s dozens of streams — is the presence of rainbow trout in the upper reaches of Boulder Creek.
On a mid-morning in June, I, Strawn, and Doug Taylor (the former a riparian volunteer and fly fisherman, the latter, ambassador with the San Diego River Park Foundation) are stepping gingerly through dead or dying underbrush on our way to one of two known trout pools. Strawn and Taylor have been here, in the past couple years, restoring a River Park–owned creekside parcel with native plants and fishes. We are five miles east of Cuyamaca Peak, the site of this stream’s headwaters at Cuyamaca Dam in the Cleveland National Forest.
Floppy-hatted Taylor has come upon trout in this little pond, under willow and sycamore, before. Typically, he creeps up, peering over a boulder and hoping to see them feeding on the gravelly bottom. Today, as stealthy as we are, we can’t scare up a one. It’s a worrisome sign, Strawn says, adjusting his ankle-stiff snake gaiters. Trout are susceptible to changes in their home environs. If the water gets too shallow or heats up, they die. Not just from low-flow starvation. Golden eagles swoop in, the pickings, talon-clutch-easy.
Both men say this creekside parcel is exceptionally dry. They’ve never seen it this bad, this early, in June. “It’s what I’d expect in August,” Strawn says. A lone mustard plant (a species brought in centuries ago by Spanish padres) is suffering. The grasses are straw-like. A Mexican fan palm withers, seems sadly out of place. “What you see dying and drying up, the most affected,” Strawn says, “are the nonnative plants. A fire will come through and wipe them out first.” More bad news: drought means more and faster conflagrations. (In 2003, the Cedar Fire raced down the Cuyamaca Mountains after the driest year ever — 3.3 inches of rain.) Strawn laughs: one “sweet side” of no rain is it’ll remove grasses while native plants, say, mugwort or wild rose, will muscle in robustly.
Soon, the three of us are loudly crunching a parched hillside trail. We tromp through dead grasses and ankle-stabbing foxtails, beside poison oak already turning red and orange, over-aged by the blistering Santa Ana winds of a fire-mad May. Below us is Boulder Creek, its rock-and-pebble bed painted with a chalky stain of sunbaked silt. Up ahead, Gold Mine Pond — we hope. Strawn and Taylor say last year they saw 11 trout scissoring in its ample pool.
Both men are nature nuts. Taylor, who grew up wanting to be a “river doctor,” found his dream job five years ago with the River Park Foundation, which protects big and little waterways with parcel buys, cleanups, erosion control, nonnative removal, and constant media outreach. He organizes group projects whose prime directive is the health of the 52-mile river.
A month earlier, Taylor and his wife were helicoptered in above the Inaja Memorial picnic site at the headwaters of the San Diego River. There, he says, they found patchy pools and the spot where a spring usually upwells. “Other years, you can see it flowing or bubbling up through the rocks, but not this year,” he says. Taylor and his wife hiked the length of the river, from source to mouth, in four days, documenting its health and stress via video and blog.
Strawn, who rattled up earlier in his 1973 Mustang convertible, yellow body and black interior, drives to this site — and others like it — regularly. In 2003, after the Cedar Fire, he restocked streams with trout. He and a small crew bucketed fish into pools after late fall rains. Rainbow trout are native to our mountains. Until recently, they survived dry years by spawning upstream, then migrating out to the ocean. Over time, they ran many stretches of the river, adapting from freshwater to seawater via a process called smoltification.
On the trail to Gold Mine Pond, Strawn reminds us why there’s a Boulder Creek road: men, in wagons and trucks, dreaming of gold and silver strikes. He points to small caves across the wash where miners dug, then filed claims. A wildcat miner or two still roams these hills with a pickax. Mines beside a flowing creek, with fish, makes sense. But when we arrive at the pool’s overlook, Strawn exclaims: “Dry, dry, dry, dry, dry.” Then, “Wow! Wow!”
What was a swimming pool–sized pond, eight feet deep, a year ago is now a motionless puddle of stagnant water. Where the water was is etched by a telltale empty-tub ring. “I would have bet,” Strawn says, “this would have been the last place,” in the creek, “to hold any fish.” Climbing down a stream-polished boulder, we see there are no trout to be had.
The rainbow trout cannot survive unless their habitat is rife with insects, good oxygen levels, a cool temperature, deep pools with dark corners, a cascading channel for the fish to move up or down when threatened, summer monsoonal recharging, gravel (not silt) in which to feed and spawn, a biodiversity of plants plus horned toads, pollywogs, and newts — a creek crowded with life.
San Diego's Boulder Creek, all dried-up
Footage of a dried-up Boulder Creek in San Diego County demonstrates the extent of the ongoing drought.
Where’s the water? It’s not coming from the sky. It may be depleted by area wells. It’s held back at Cuyamaca dam for the Helix Water District. It’s likely trickling underground as streams do: Rob Hutsel, director of the River Park Foundation, calls them “upside-down,” or hidden, rivers. The water tunnels under rock outcroppings or beneath alluvial channels, disappearing from sight.
Local water supplies are depleted, bordering on severe, siphoned by three years of scarce rain and a larger cycle of drying up. Whether you’re a climate-change believer or denier, drought is a standard feature of climate. Tree-ring historians tell us droughts ended the Mayan civilization a millennium ago, disrupted the Native Americans in the Southwest in the 12th Century, and created the Dust Bowl during the 1930s. With millions of Westerners frightened into water conservation these days (according to Probe Market Research, drought scores second ahead of the economy as the region’s biggest issue), it matters not whether climate change is permanent or ephemeral. Unless the rains come, water used today is less water for tomorrow.