SAN JOSE -- About a year and a half ago, a group of Delmas Park residents met at the Guadalupe River Trail to discuss the garbage and growing homeless population that dotted the trails of the Guadalupe River and Los Gatos Creek.
"We kind of hatched an unofficial idea called 'take back the creek,' " said Phil Hood, president of the Delmas Park Neighborhood Association. "People were saying we need to do something."
But little happened for months. The garbage festered, in part due to bureaucratic mix-ups and in part due to budget cuts for the government agencies with jurisdiction over the creeks that parallel Highway 87.
So one resident, Steve Holmes, of San Jose, has taken it upon himself to cut through the red tape and clean up Los Gatos Creek after seeing footage of salmon swimming upstream but failing to get past the garbage that blocks their way. After 18 years in the sales industry, he started Friends of Los Gatos Creek, a volunteer campaign to clean up the creek, educate community members and attempt to restore the salmon population in the most urban creek in Santa Clara County.
"The (cleanup) services that are available, most of them are on a limited budget due to cutbacks and the economic decline that we're climbing out of," he said. "Whether it's the Campbell parks group, the city of San Jose, the Santa Clara Valley Water District ... to put the onus on them to single-handedly fix this problem is an unrealistic expectation."
One of Friends of Los Gatos Creek's first tasks is to identify the circumstances under which salmon could return to the area. Though he is an avid fisherman, Holmes has brought aboard professionals to collect water samples and monitor the salmon spawning season to identify prime habitat for young smolts.
"What you need to do is follow (the salmon) as they migrate upstream," said Brian Allée, the lead biologist for Friends of Los Gatos Creek and a 50-year veteran of fisheries specializing in salmon. That way, he said, the group could gauge how well the fish spawn and whether they survive, especially as streams dry up in the summer and get too warm.
Allée, of Gilroy, is the point man for a proposed sampling regimen that will test water temperature and quality as well as sediment during the spawning period -- in the fall for chinook salmon and the winter for steelhead, the two main salmon species that spawn in Los Gatos Creek. Friends of Los Gatos Creek is worried about high levels of bacteria due in part to the dozens of homeless encampments that dot the creek.
"There's barriers, there's couches, rugs, all kinds of things. There's sewage problems," Allée said. "Here's the tragedy of an urban situation -- these fish migrate all the way out in the ocean and come all the way back just to find high temperatures and urban runoff."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists both central California coast steelhead and California coast chinook salmon as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, which means that they are likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future.
The sheer number of agencies that have jurisdiction over parts of the creek has complicated the creek cleaning effort, compounded by the complicated social dynamics of evicting the dozens of homeless people who have made their homes under bridges and the creek's surrounding brush. The homeless presence has made it particularly difficult for volunteers to scale Los Gatos Creek's steep banks and remove the old furniture and garbage that make up the homeless camps. In a single cleanup organized by Friends of Los Gatos Creek last month, volunteers pulled couches, mattresses and 18 shopping carts from a single location underneath Bascom Avenue in Campbell.
According to Hood, one of Friends of Los Gatos Creek's successes is in bringing together the whole community -- environmental groups, homeless outreach groups, residential groups and law enforcement -- to sustain a coordinated effort. They've accomplished that despite the fact that the group is operating with little financial support; all of its members are volunteers.
"It's difficult for homeowners or volunteers to even know who to request help from for certain parts of the creek," he said. "The water District, Parks and Recreation, various cities and police departments ... (Holmes) is the first leader with the time and energy to bring them all together. It's a level of sustained cooperation that we haven't had in a long time."
Though cutting through the paperwork has been slow going so far, Holmes is confident that an incremental approach is necessary for a mess of this size.
"We have to be patient with this process," he said. "For every 10 pounds of debris we pull out of the creek, 1 pound goes back in. Eventually we'll get to the point where we won't have the sheer volume of trash that we've seen in the first couple years."
Contact Edward Ngai at 408-920-5064.