In an effort to protect federally listed steelhead trout and provide visually impaired campers with safe access to the outdoors, the Napa County Resource Conservation District (RCD) partnered with Enchanted Hills Camp and Retreat to convert crumbling and eroding roads into accessible hiking trails.
California Special District met with Leigh Sharp, Executive Director for Napa County RCD and visited the Enchanted Hills facilities to learn more about this project and the impact to the environment and the community.
Tell us about the work NCRCD is doing in the community?
Like other resource conservation districts across California, Napa County RCD was formed for the primary purpose of working in partnership with landowners to help them manage the natural resources on their land in a way that meets economic and environmental goals.
We work with all types of partners interested in voluntary conservation: farmers and ranchers, homeowners, businesses, rural residents, cities and counties. These partnerships are key to Napa County RCDs success and are critical for environmental protection because so much of Napa County is managed by private landowners.
Napa County RCD is committed to working on a variety of projects related to wildlife, water quality, endangered species, greenhouse gas reduction, carbon sequestration, and fire risk reduction to name a few. Our projects are based upon the individual concerns of our residents and the community we serve.
Our project with Enchanted Hills Camp is focused on the restoration of a very important creek for Steelhead Trout. The project is a road to trail conversion where we’re converting legacy and eroding roads that have been on this property since the early 1800s into stormproof and stable trails that will be used by the Enchanted Hills Camp and Retreat. The benefit to fish is improved water quality and spawning habitat. The benefit to the camp is improved access to outdoor experiences for the visually impaired campers that are served at Enchanted Hills Camp. For our community, the project is a win-win.
How did this project come about?
The district has been working with the community of Mt. Veeder, where the camp is located, for several years. We started with an assessment of all the major unpaved roads in the area and we found that this property had a number of roads that were contributing sediment to the local creeks. Excessive sediment smothers steelhead eggs, effectively starving them of oxygen and resulting in reduced survival.
Having participated in the initial road assessment, Enchanted Hills Camp understood the importance of reducing erosion from their roads. Together we mapped out a plan and applied for grants from Federal and State agencies to help cover the cost of the project. Ultimately, funds from Enchanted Hills Camp, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were combined to cover the cost of the project.
Tell us more about Enchanted Hills Camp and Retreat.
Enchanted Hills Camp and Retreat is located just ten miles west of Napa. This local non-profit provides valuable recreational opportunities for visually impaired and deaf-blind children, teens, adults, and seniors in a fun, challenging, and accessible way. The camp was formed in 1950, and it was the first camp of its kind on the West Coast. With over 60 years in operation, the antiquated roads at Enchanted Hills were in need of some restoration in order to better serve campers, improve water quality, and reduce fire risk.
What is the focus of this project?
From Napa County RCDs perspective, the roads to trails project is primarily focused on preventing excessive erosion and sediment from entering Napa’s streams and degrading fish habitat. The residents of Napa County and the broader Bay Area benefit because the Napa River watershed is considered an “anchor” watershed that is critical to sustaining a regional population of steelhead in the larger Bay Area.
What was the district’s involvement with the project?
The Resource Conservation District provided the technical assistance to make the project possible, from planning through construction. We worked with Enchanted Hills Camp in assessing the site, prioritizing the roads, acquiring grant funds to help offset the cost of implementation, obtaining permits, selecting a contractor, overseeing construction, and monitoring project effectiveness.
What does the project entail?
The project entailed reducing erosion from critical sites and road surfaces along four miles of unpaved road in the Dry Creek watershed in Napa County. Several stream crossings (old culvert pipes) were improved or replaced to allow for natural stream flow while also providing hiking access across the streams at low flows. Other stream crossing sites were improved by replacing and upgrading culverts to allow for stormflows and to reduce the likelihood of culvert plugging and failure, which would contribute significant amounts of sediment to the stream. Road surfaces were treated to reduce erosion from concentrated flow over the road surface. These types of treatments are a standard way of addressing erosion from unpaved roads, which have been found to contribute approximately ½ of the human-associated fine sediment delivery to waterways in the North Coast.
Once the project sites were treated, straw mulch and seed were spread on top of the bare soil. Straw mulch provides immediate cover for the site and seed germinates and reduces the amount of sediment delivered to the stream channel by binding loose soil and preventing future erosion.
Why is sediment flowing into the streams threatening to the Steelhead population?
Steelhead are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in freshwater, migrate to the ocean, and then return to freshwater to spawn (reproduce). Freshwater habitat requirements change as steelhead go through different life phases.
Adult steelhead, coming from the ocean, need access to their natal streams. Streams must be free of barriers to migration, as the majority of spawning occurs in the upper reaches of tributaries. They also need access to spawning gravel in areas free of heavy sedimentation with adequate flow, and cool, clear water. Once they have spawned, adult steelhead may return to the ocean.
Steelhead eggs and pre-emergent fry (alevins) are nestled within the stream gravel and need adequate dissolved oxygen and cool water temperatures. Excessive fine sediment, such as silt or sand, threatens the species by smothering the developing eggs. Once the fish emerge from the gravel they are called fry, they reside in shallow, protected areas of the stream, and they are able to catch their own food. Excessive suspended sediment causes turbidity and can make it difficult for the fry to find food, resulting in an undersized fish that is less likely to survive. Water clarity and temperature remain important as fry turn to juveniles and move to riffles, pools and deep runs to grow for a period of one to three years before heading out to the ocean.
Why is protecting the Steelhead trout’s habitat important?
Like most areas of the west coast, the local steelhead population has been greatly reduced from historic times. The National Marine Fisheries Service (now called NOAA Fisheries) listed steelhead as a threatened species in Napa County in August 1997. However, even with reduced numbers, the Napa River watershed is still considered one of the most significant anadromous fish streams within San Francisco Bay Area.
Like steelhead populations throughout California, the steelhead population of the Napa River has declined significantly since the late 1940’s from approximately 6,000 – 8,000 adults to a few hundred. The major factors causing steelhead population decline in the Napa River is thought to be excessive sedimentation, habitat simplification, inadequate stream flows, and blocked access to historic spawning and rearing areas. Several efforts are underway to address many of these factors.
In addition to the steelhead being a protected species, they are an important component of California´s diverse wildlife heritage. They are also a good indicator of the health of aquatic systems because they use all portions of a river system, and require cool, clean water.
What is the most rewarding part of this project?
The environmental benefits of this project are no doubt rewarding, however as a Resource Conservation District, we also don’t underestimate the importance of people having access to the environment in a way that will build a sense of wonder, enjoyment, and recognition of the importance of good stewardship. This project is particularly rewarding because it will provide visually impaired campers with improved access to nature so that they may travel the trails independently and learn about their environment.
How can individuals get involved in conservation efforts?
Whether you are in your backyard, or you manage a large camp like Enchanted Hills, there are always ways to help protect the environment in our communities. Conservation is for everyone. If you are willing to learn more, local resource conservation districts are there to help.