FALLBROOK – Non-profit conservation group California Trout has begun construction on a Sandia Creek Drive bridge replacement and fish passage project in San Diego County. The project removes the last remaining barrier to the migration of endangered Southern steelhead trout in the Santa Margarita River.
In the process, the project will replace the existing bridge, a flood hazard that becomes completely submerged during heavy rains, with a new steel bridge. Designed with coastal resilience in mind, the new structure will run above the 100-year flood mark, improving traffic flow and pedestrian safety.
"We are thrilled that NOAA has joined our funding cohort for $3.2M to support implementation of this multi-benefit project," said Sandra Jacobson, Director of CalTrout's South Coast and Sierra Regions. "The NOAA grant will help fund not only construction tasks but also the development of a locally trained and employed Climate Crew to maintain the lands of this pristine watershed in Southern California."
This project exemplifies the power of the Infrastructure and Investment Act. It is one of the Act's first recipients for these federal funds through NOAA.
In addition to the grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, CalTrout raised $18 million in grant funding over the past two years from state agencies including California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation Board, California Natural Resources agency and State Coastal Conservancy.
"The Santa Margarita River is one of the last free flowing rivers in Southern California," said Jacobson. "This project highlights the power of landscape-scale coastal resiliency projects that promote recovery of an endangered species while benefiting the community. It sits at the intersection of natural wonders and community protection."
The new 574-foot bridge will improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety around the river and nearby trail system.
The Santa Margarita River is designated as a high priority recovery river in NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service federal recovery plan. The bridge replacement project will enhance this critical wildlife corridor and restore steelhead access to 12 miles of fish habitat. This waterway historically supported steelhead and still has natural channel characteristics necessary for migration and propagation of the species.
The project is part of the South Coast Steelhead Coalition portfolio to recover this endangered trout from the brink of extinction. It is at the forefront of several large fish passage projects in Southern California that CalTrout is pursuing in parallel with key policy measures such as CalTrout's petition in 2021 to list Southern steelhead as a State Endangered Species under CESA.
This bridge replacement project brings together terrestrial and aquatic corridor protection for wildlife and is a central part of the popular Santa Margarita Trail Preserve, which is owned and managed by The Wildlands Conservancy. In addition to restoring access to upstream trout spawning and rearing habitat, this multi-benefit project provides flood management for coastal resiliency and provides public access for a diverse community of people who regularly visit the Trail Preserve.
"We are very pleased to receive this funding from state and federal agencies to lead this project, from design through construction," Jacobson continued. "The partnerships underlying this project have propelled it to success."
The Design Team is composed of the engineering firms KPFF, River Focus and Leighton engineering groups, and Dudek for permitting and environmental documentation. The Construction Team incorporates Granite Construction as the General Contractor, Gannett Fleming as the Construction Management Team, and Pechanga Nation for Tribal Monitoring.
The project was developed in close review by the County of San Diego, which will own and maintain the bridge. The existing structure and nearby trails will remain open during construction. The project has been approved by many regulatory agencies through an extensive permitting process and was also approved by the Fallbrook Community Planning Group.
"Government grants make up 70% of the CalTrout operating budget," Jacobson added. "These grants from NOAA and other governmental sources allow us to execute significant large-scale projects that benefit wild fish and people throughout California."