The Least Bell’s Vireo is one species benefiting from the riparian restoration projects along the Santa Clara River. Photo: Steve Maslowski, USFWS
[U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Sept. 14, 2016] – Oil spills permeate every aspect of the environment, contaminating water, destroying land, and threatening wildlife. To clean up, we must work on many levels to restore the impacted area. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple solution to this.
The communities surrounding the Santa Clara River in southern California are all too familiar with the difficulty of cleaning up an oil spill. Two major oil spills, the ExxonMobil pipeline break of 1991 and the ARCO pipeline break of 1994, impacted the same 15-mile stretch of the Santa Clara River.
Following the spills, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) partnered with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to conduct a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) for each spill. The watershed is home to 16 federally protected species, and is an Audubon Global Important Bird Area. The NRDAs documented impacts to hundreds of acres of riparian habitat as well as numerous birds, mammals, fish, and other wildlife that live, feed, and shelter in the river corridor.
To counter the environmental injury caused by these spills, the Service and CDFW created the Santa Clara River Trustee Council (SCRTC). The SCRTC works on restoration projects for the injured habitat and wildlife of the Santa Clara River, using $9.8 million ($2.7 million from Exxon Mobil and $7.1 million from ARCO) to protect land and rebuild native habitats for wildlife.
Unlike many other major rivers in the Country, the Santa Clara River is not in the public domain, and is divided into numerous parcels that are privately owned. To protect as much of the river as possible, the SCRTC has partnered with The Nature Conservancy, California Coastal Conservancy, and California Wildlife Conservation Board to acquire 1,011 acres of land within the river corridor. The SCRTC is also working with these partners and the California Department of Water Resources to preserve agricultural lands in the floodplain surrounding the river channel. Preserving these iconic agricultural fields of the Santa Clara River valley provides a buffer between the river and our communities. Farmers that participate in the floodplain protection program receive funding in order to keep their land in agriculture, in exchange for a promise not to build permanent levees that would prevent the river from flowing naturally. Protecting the land surrounding the Santa Clara River protects the habitats within the river corridor that are so valuable for wildlife.
When free-flowing rivers are dammed and channelized, migratory fish such as the Southern steelhead trout are unable to reach their spawning grounds, and the entire population declines. Photo: Jennifer Strickland, USFWS.
Oil spills can be detrimental to wildlife reliant on the damaged water and land, but the restoration actions can focus on fixing other issues that threaten the river. The Santa Clara is one of the last remaining free-flowing river systems in southern California — the rest are obstructed by dams, and channelized with concrete in large sections. When free-flowing rivers like the Santa Clara are dammed and channelized, migratory fish such as the Southern steelhead trout are unable to reach their spawning grounds, and the entire population declines. That’s why the SCRTC is partnering with California Trout and the California Conservation Corps to remove barriers to fish migration in Santa Clara River. Through rehabilitation of their habitats and further research, we can restore wildlife in and along the Santa Clara.
The process of cleaning up after an oil spill and restoring the environment spans multiple generations, so participation and support from the local community is the key to restoring the Santa Clara and keeping the watershed healthy. SCRTC sponsored education programs and museum exhibits work to foster an appreciation of the Santa Clara River by highlighting the wildlife and ecosystem services the river supports. Children and adults are embracing these education efforts and people of all ages have volunteered to help complete long-term projects in the watershed.
Restoring and conserving the Santa Clara River will be a lengthy process, but we have made incredible progress. Through the hard work of the SCRTC, the Service, our partners, and the local community, the devastating effects of these oil spills in the Santa Clara River are becoming a thing of the past.