Timeline of historical impacts on the San Mateo Creek Watershed

The following is an excellent synopsis of the history of the Watershed. It is excerpted from the San Mateo Creek Watershed Profile once, but not longer, posted on the California Conservancy website in the WRP information section (authors unidentified). The full Profile is available in the Resources section of this website.

HISTORY

The landscape of the SMC watershed remained relatively undisturbed until the Spanish and European settlement of the region. With the arrival of a ranching culture, the landscape underwent significant changes. Native grasslands were slowly replaced by European and Asian weeds and other introduced plants. Some botanists argue that this invasion of exotic plants had more affect on the area than any other single factor (USFS, 1999a). Many historic factors have affected the condition of the SMC watershed. The following representative eras summarize the SMC watershed's history.

Native Americans

The early native American inhabitants of the coast and the Santa Ana Mountains included the Kumeyaay, Luisaños, Cahuella, and Capeño. These groups fished the streams and found an ample food supply among the abundant plant life. The explorers Vizcaíno and Cabrillo reported that the native Indians did considerable burning of the brushlands, but the overall impact was probably not very great (USFS, 1999a).

Mission Period

In 1769, the Spanish mission expeditions led by Junipero Serra and Gaspar de Portolá established settlements from San Diego to Monterey. European settlement of the SMC watershed was centered around the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Portolá camped at an Indian village north of San Onofre on July 22, 1769 on his way north to Monterey Bay. This 133,441-acre area was part of Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, which was granted to Pio and Andres Pico in 1841.The Mission Period, which began in 1769, initiated the changes to the river system through the introduction of irrigation systems. The Spanish brought knowledge of aqueducts, and they built a huge system of them throughout California. Water was supplied from surface water bodies irrigating extensive gardens, orchards, and vineyards. The missions prospered until the separation of Mexico from Spain in 1821. The Secularization Act of 1833 ended the Mission Period and virtually eliminated the mission-owned lands. This resulted in the opening of large portions of land to settlement by private ranchers and the beginning of the Rancho Period.

Rancho Period

During this period, the land within the watershed was parceled out in the form of large Mexican land grants. These "ranchos" brought large numbers of cattle and sheep, which grazed upon the grasslands of the lower San Mateo Creek drainage basin. With the arrival of the Spanish, ranching became the predominant activity in the watershed. Large numbers of cattle and sheep grazed upon the grasslands of the lower San Mateo Creek drainage basin, drastically altering the native landscape. Widespread overgrazing throughout the area destroyed native vegetation. Rancheros cut brush and trees for fence posts and cleared underbrush with fires for foraging. Also, the introduction of plants from Europe and Asia displaced native grasslands, which probably created the single most destructive assault on the landscape. Ranching continued with European settlement and became the main land use activity in the area until the early 20th century. The San Mateo coastal plain and foothills provided not only ample grazing territory, but also the creek itself served as the major water supply for livestock in the region. At least three historic windmill wells pumped water from the creek bed, the remnants of which are still present.

Pioneer Settlers

In the late 1860's, an influx of gold miners from northern California descended upon the canyons of the Santa Ana Mountains within the upper SMC watershed. In addition to gold, other metals such as zinc, lead, and silver were mined and consequently altered the landscape. Trees were cut for mine timbers and firewood, and great expanses of brush were burned to make way for mineral exploration. Early reports from the 1870s and 1880s document uncontrolled fires that burned for weeks at a time. These events caused serious damage to irrigation works and threatened the water supplies of the surrounding rural areas and coastal towns. In response, the California Forestry Commission, established by Governor Stone in 1886, voiced the necessity for special protection of the watershed to prevent fires and subsequent erosion, which were "injuring the climate, agriculture and future prospects of southern California."

Contemporary Period

In the late 1860's, an influx of gold miners from northern California descended upon the canyons of the Santa Ana Mountains within the upper SMC watershed. In addition to gold, other metals such as zinc, lead, and silver were mined and consequently altered the landscape. Trees were cut for mine timbers and firewood, and great expanses of brush were burned to make way for mineral exploration. Early reports from the 1870s and 1880s document uncontrolled fires that burned for weeks at a time. These events caused serious damage to irrigation works and threatened the water supplies of the surrounding rural areas and coastal towns. In response, the California Forestry Commission, established by Governor Stone in 1886, voiced the necessity for special protection of the watershed to prevent fires and subsequent erosion, which were "injuring the climate, agriculture and future prospects of southern California."
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