Santa Ynez River

Coordinates: 34°41′31″N 120°36′7″W / 34.69194°N 120.60194°W / 34.69194; -120.60194
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Santa Ynez River
Río Grande de San Vernardo
Aerial view of the mouth of the river
Map of the Santa Ynez River watershed
CountryUnited States
CountySanta Barbara
CitiesSolvang, Lompoc
Physical characteristics
 • locationTransverse Ranges
 • coordinates34°28′40″N 119°26′51″W / 34.47778°N 119.44750°W / 34.47778; -119.44750[1]
 • elevation4,140 ft (1,260 m)[2]
MouthPacific Ocean
 • coordinates
34°41′31″N 120°36′7″W / 34.69194°N 120.60194°W / 34.69194; -120.60194[1]
 • elevation
0 ft (0 m)
Length92 mi (148 km)[3]
Basin size896 sq mi (2,320 km2)[4]
 • locationNarrows, near Lompoc
 • average127 cu ft/s (3.6 m3/s)
 • minimum0 cu ft/s (0 m3/s)
 • maximum120,000 cu ft/s (3,400 m3/s)
Basin features
 • leftAlder Creek, Alisal Creek, Salsipuedes Creek, Miguelito Creek
 • rightSanta Cruz Creek, Cachuma Creek, Santa Agueda Creek, Zanja de Cota Creek, Alamo Pintado Creek, Zaca Creek

The Santa Ynez River is one of the largest rivers on the Central Coast of California. It is 92 miles (148 km) long,[3] flowing from east to west through the Santa Ynez Valley, reaching the Pacific Ocean at Surf, near Vandenberg Space Force Base and the city of Lompoc.

The river drains the north slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the south slope of the San Rafael Mountains, as well as much of the southern half of Santa Barbara County. Its drainage basin is 896 square miles (2,320 km2) in area.[4] The river's flow is highly variable. It usually dries up almost completely in the summer, but can become a raging torrent in the winter. The river has three dams which can impound a total of 210,000 acre-feet (260,000,000 m3) of water in wet years.


The river was first named by the Spanish Portolà expedition, first European land exploration of Alta California, which camped near the river mouth on August 30, 1769. Apparently unable to agree on a single name, expedition diarists recorded three. Engineer Miguel Costansó wrote "Río Grande de San Verardo".[5] Franciscan missionary Juan Crespi noted two additional names; "San Bernardo" and "Santa Rosa".[6] None of the three names remain attached to any feature in the area.

Instead, the river and mountains took the name of Mission Santa Inés (also spelled "Ynés" or "Ynéz" in New Spain), which was established in 1804 (dedicated to Saint Agnes of Rome, virgin and martyr).[7] According to the USGS, variant and historical names of the Santa Ynez River include La Purisima River, Rio De La Purisima, Rio De Calaguasa, Rio Santa Rosa, Rio De Santa Ines, and Rio De Santa Ynes.[1]


The Santa Ynez River originates in Los Padres National Forest, on the northern slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains near Divide Peak and the Ventura County border. The river flows west, collecting various headwater tributaries. The Upper Santa Ynez Campground is located near the river's source. After flowing through Billiard Flats the river enters Jameson Lake, the reservoir impounded by Juncal Dam. Below the dam, Alder Creek joins the Santa Ynez River from the south. At times water from Alder Creek is diverted into Jameson Lake via a tunnel.[8]

West end of Jameson Lake, 2012
Lake Cachuma, a reservoir on the Santa Ynez River. The river is visible at the far bottom of the image.

Continuing its generally westward course, the Santa Ynez flows by several campgrounds and canyons, including Blue Canyon. Mono Creek joins from the north just as the Santa Ynez flows into Gibraltar Reservoir, impounded by Gibraltar Dam. Below this dam the river passes several campgrounds as well as facilities such as the Los Prietos Ranger Station. Paradise Road runs along the river. Continuing west, the river passes Fremont Campground near the mouth of Red Rock Canyon.

West of Red Rock Canyon the river leaves Los Padres National Forest and its valley widens considerably. Kelly Creek joins from the south, draining Los Laureles Canyon and Cold Spring Canyon. State Route 154, which crosses the Santa Ynez Mountains via San Marcos Pass, enters the Santa Ynez River valley at this point and follows the river for several miles to the west. Hot Spring Canyon joins from the south just before the Santa Ynez River enters Lake Cachuma.

Lake Cachuma, the largest reservoir on the river, is approximately 5 miles (8.0 km) in length. Several tributaries join the Santa Ynez River in Lake Cachuma, including Santa Cruz Creek and Cachuma Creek from the north and a number of smaller streams from the south. The lake area is designated as the Lake Cachuma Recreation Area. Cachuma County Park, near Tequepis Point, provides lake access. Water from the lake is diverted into the Tecolote Tunnel, which passes south under the mountains to the Santa Barbara area.

Below Lake Cachuma, the Santa Ynez River continues its westward course. Its valley continues to widen and contains ranches and other development. The river passes by the town of Santa Ynez and the cities of Solvang and Buellton. In Buellton the river is crossed by U.S. Route 101. Several tributaries join the river in this area, including Quiota Creek, Alisal Creek, and Nojoqui Creek and Falls from the south, and Santa Agueda Creek,[9] Zanja de Cota Creek,[10] Alamo Pintado Creek and Zaca Creek from the north.

West of Buellton the Santa Ynez River flows between the Santa Rita Hills and Purisima Hills to the north and the Santa Rosa Hills to the south. It is joined by Santa Rosa Creek from the north and Salsipuedes Creek[11] from the south. Just west of Salsipuedes Creek the Santa Ynez River flows past the largest city in the valley, Lompoc. A few miles west of Lompoc the river reaches the Pacific Ocean at a location known as Surf, where there is a beach and an Amtrak station. While there is public access to Surf and the mouth of the Santa Ynez River, most of the land between Lompoc and the ocean is part of Vandenberg Space Force Base.[12]


The USGS operates several stream gages along the Santa Ynez river. Gage 11133000 is located at Narrows, near Lompoc. The mean annual discharge recorded over the period since flow regulation by Lake Cachuma, in 1952, up to 2009, is 127 cubic feet per second (3.6 m3/s). The maximum discharge was 80,000 cubic feet per second (2,300 m3/s), recorded on January 25, 1969. The maximum discharge predating the stream gage was an estimated 120,000 cubic feet per second (3,400 m3/s), during the flood of January 9, 1907. There is no flow at all for several months each year.[13]

River modifications[edit]

Gibraltar Dam and Reservoir, completed in 1920 and raised in 1940, after sedimentation had severely reduced its capacity. 2009 photo by Doc Searls.

There are three reservoirs on the river, the largest of which is Lake Cachuma, with a capacity of 205,000 acre-feet (253,000,000 m3). Bradbury Dam, which forms the lake, was built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Water from Lake Cachuma is diverted into the Tecolote Tunnel, which passes south under the Santa Ynez Mountains. The tunnel supplies water to the city of Santa Barbara (which uses it for drinking water), the Goleta Water District, the Carpinteria Valley Water District, and the Montecito Water District. Water from Lake Cachuma is released into the Santa Ynez River below Bradbury Dam in order to satisfy downstream water rights.[8]

The other two reservoirs are Gibraltar Reservoir, impounded by Gibraltar Dam, and Jameson Lake, impounded by Juncal Dam. Gibraltar Reservoir supplies water to the City of Santa Barbara via the Santa Barbara Water Tunnel under the Santa Ynez Mountains. Jameson Lake supplies water to the Montecito Water District via another tunnel under the Santa Ynez Mountains. In 2004 the diversions amounted to 3,130 acre-feet (3,860,000 m3) from Gibraltar Reservoir, and 1,730 acre-feet (2,130,000 m3) from Jameson Lake.[8]

A 2010 report on the restoration potential of the Santa Ynez River estuary, found "Over the last 150 years human activities, especially dam construction, have significantly affected river flows in the entire watershed. The most important changes to wetland habitats and ecologic processes have resulted from changed river inflows and sediment loads from the watershed combined with changing hydraulic and geomorphic effects from bridge causeways. These process changes have led to alteration of sedimentation and erosion patterns and converted wetland habitats to upland. Upstream dam construction now controls 47% of the watershed’s annual runoff, has reduced the frequency and duration of lagoon breaching as well as the magnitude and frequency of flood events that have the most important role in sustaining and renewing a mosaic of wetland and estuarine habitats within the estuary and lower river."[14]


Early Western travelers fording the Santa Ynez River during the turn of the 20th century.

In the 1940s the Santa Ynez River was thought to have the largest run of steelhead (Oncorhyncus mykiss irideus) south of San Francisco Bay.[15] Prior to the completion of Cachuma Dam in 1953, the steelhead run on the Santa Ynez River was estimated to be as high as 25,000 adults.[16] Three decades earlier, in 1920, the Gibraltar Dam was built and blocked access to spawning in the upper watershed, so early twentieth century steelhead runs were likely much higher still.[15] The National Marine Fisheries Service listed the Southern California steelhead Distinct Population Segment as endangered in 1997 due to a 99% decline in its population in the twentieth century.[17] A wild rainbow trout population above the Cachuma Dam probably provides outgoing smolts which become steelhead trout in the ocean, however a low percentage of outgoing smolt survive the migration because of low to no flows or predation in the coastal estuary.[18] Genetic analysis of the steelhead in the Santa Ynez River watershed has shown them to be of native and not hatchery stocks.[19]

The lower Santa Ynez River in the Lompoc area, and lower tributary Salsipuedes Creek has about a dozen California Golden beaver (Castor canadensis subauratus) dams, in wet years steelhead can generally get around, over, or through beaver dams, and steelhead are common in rivers and streams where beaver are numerous.[20] In addition, high winter flows disrupt the beaver dams and allow steelhead passage. The beavers may play a critical role for steelhead populations as their ponds replenish aquifers, allowing groundwater to recharge streams in dry summers, and provide perennial pools for oversummering trout smolts. Salmonid abundance and fish size increases when beaver are present.[21][22][23] Evidence that beaver were once extant in southern California coastal streams includes an adult male beaver skull collected by mammalogist Dr. John Hornung in May, 1906 "along the Sespe River in Ventura County" which is now housed in the Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.[24][25] There is a Chumash pictograph of a beaver at Painted Rock in the nearby Cuyama River watershed.[26] The Barbareño and Ventureño Chumash have a Beaver Dance.[27] The Chumash word for beaver is Chipik, spelled "č’ǝpǝk’" in Barbareño and "tšǝ’pǝk" in Ventureño, and "č’ɨpɨk" in Ineseño (Samala) (Timothy Henry personal communication 2011-01-23).[28] Father Pedro Font, on the second de Anza Expedition in 1776, described the coastal Chumash women as wearing beaver capes.[29] John Peabody Harrington reported beaver on Zanja de Cota Creek on or before 1900.[citation needed] Taken together, these facts support the hypothesis that beaver ranged throughout Santa Barbara County, California.[citation needed] The Santa Ynez River beaver were likely trapped out until re-introduction in the 1940s by the California Department of Fish and Game.[30]

The endangered Tidewater goby (Eucyclogobius newberryi) is also found in the creek's brackish coastal lagoon and several miles upstream in sections of stream impounded by beavers which provide ideal slow-moving water habitat for gobies.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Santa Ynez River, USGS, GNIS
  2. ^ Google Earth elevation for source coordinates
  3. ^ a b "National Hydrography Dataset". United States Geological Survey. Retrieved December 23, 2010. ArcExplorer GIS data viewer.
  4. ^ a b "Watershed Boundary Dataset". USDA, NRCS, National Cartography and Geospatial Center. Retrieved December 23, 2010. ArcExplorer GIS data viewer.
  5. ^ Miguel Costanso (1911). The Portola expedition of 1769-1770, diary of Miguel Costanso in Volume 2, Issue 4 of Publications of the Academy of Pacific Coast History. University of California. p. 307. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  6. ^ Bolton, Herbert E. (1927). Fray Juan Crespi: Missionary Explorer on the Pacific Coast, 1769-1774. HathiTrust Digital Library. p. 180. Retrieved April 16, 2014.
  7. ^ Erwin G. Gudde (1969). 1000 California place names: their origin and meaning. University of California Press. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-520-01432-9. Retrieved November 20, 2011. santa ynez gudde.
  8. ^ a b c Water Resources Data—California, Water Year 2004, Volume 1
  9. ^ "Santa Agueda Creek". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey, United States Department of the Interior.
  10. ^ "Zanja de Cota Creek". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey, United States Department of the Interior.
  11. ^ "Salsipuedes Creek". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey, United States Department of the Interior.
  12. ^ Course info from various sources including and California Road & Recreation Atlas (4th ed.). Benchmark Maps. 2005. ISBN 0-929591-80-1.; and: Oregon Road & Recreation Atlas (2nd ed.). Benchmark Maps. 2002. ISBN 0-929591-50-X.
  13. ^ "Water resources data for the United States, Water Year 2009; gage 11133000, Santa Ynez River at Narrows, near Lompoc, CA" (PDF). USGS. Retrieved December 23, 2010.
  14. ^ David Revell; Phil Williams (August 23, 2010). Summary Report: Assessment of Restoration Actions for the Santa Ynez River Estuary (Report).
  15. ^ a b Matt W. Stoecker (January 29, 2004). Steelhead Migration Barrier Inventory and Recovery: Opportunities for the Santa Ynez River, Ca (PDF) (Report). Community Environmental Council, Santa Barbara, California. Retrieved June 7, 2010.
  16. ^ Titus, R.; D. Erman; W. Snider (2000). "History and status of steelhead in California coastal drainages south of San Francisco Bay". California Fish and Game. Sacramento, California.
  17. ^ "South-Central/Southern California Coast Steelhead Recovery Planning Domain 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation of Southern California Coast Steelhead Distinct Population Segment" (PDF). National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2011. Retrieved December 3, 2013.
  18. ^ Elise Kelley. Steelhead Trout Smolt Survival in the Santa Clara and Santa Ynez River Estuaries (Report). California Department of Fish and Game Fisheries Restoration Grant Program. Retrieved June 7, 2010.
  19. ^ Anthony J. Clemento; Eric C. Anderson; David Boughton; Derek Girman; John Carlos Garza (2009). "Population genetic structure and ancestry of Oncorhynchus mykiss populations above and below dams in south-central California". Conservation Genetics. 10 (5): 1321–1336. doi:10.1007/s10592-008-9712-0. S2CID 32490944.
  20. ^ Santa Ynez River Technical Advisory Committee (September 1999). Adult Steelhead Passage Flow Analysis for the Santa Ynez River (PDF) (Report). Santa Barbara, California: Santa Ynez River Consensus Committee. Retrieved June 7, 2010.
  21. ^ Rosell F, Bozser O, Collen P, Parker H (2005). "Ecological impact of beavers Castor fiber and Castor canadensis and their ability to modify ecosystems" (PDF). Mammal Review. 35 (3–4): 248–276. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2907.2005.00067.x. hdl:11250/2438080. Retrieved March 1, 2010.
  22. ^ Pollock, Michael M.; Morgan Heim; Danielle Werner (2003). "Hydrologic and geomorphic effects of beaver dams and their influence on fishes" (PDF). American Fisheries Society Symposium. 37: 213–233. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 7, 2011. Retrieved January 17, 2010.
  23. ^ Collen P, Gibson RJ (2001). "The general ecology of beavers (Castor spp.), as related to their influence on stream ecosystems and riparian habitats, and the subsequent effects on fish – a review". Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries. 10 (4): 439–461. doi:10.1023/A:1012262217012. S2CID 8713798.
  24. ^ "MVZ Mammals 4918 Castor canadensis subauratus Sespe River". Berkeley, California: Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  25. ^ Walter P. Taylor (1916). The Status of the Beavers in Western America with a Consideration of the Factors in their Speciation, in University of California Publications in Zoology Vol. 12. Berkeley, California: University of California. p. 449. Retrieved March 11, 2010.
  26. ^ Georgia Lee; Stephen Horne (1978). "The Painted Rock Site (SBa-502 and SBa-526): Sapaksi, the House of the Sun". Journal of California Anthropology. 5 (2). Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  27. ^ Janice Timbrook (2007). Chumash Ethnobotany. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. p. 180. ISBN 978-1-59714-048-5.
  28. ^ Richard B. Applegate (2007). Samala English Dictionary. Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. p. 476. ISBN 978-0-615-13131-3.
  29. ^ Pedro Font (February 24, 1776). Expanded Diary of Pedro Font. Archived from the original on July 20, 2011. Retrieved June 25, 2011.
  30. ^ Arthur L. Hensley (1946). "A Progress Report on Beaver Management in California (see Fig. 20)". California Fish and Game. 32 (2): 88. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  31. ^ Recovery Plan for the Tidewater Goby (Eucyclogobius newberryi) (PDF) (Report). Portland, Oregon: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2005. p. 199. Retrieved December 3, 2010.