Rincon Creek, Santa Barbara Channel

Rincon Creek, Santa Barbara Channel

by | Jan 29, 2022

Rincon Creek is a stream that starts in the Santa Ynez Mountains near Divide Peak at an elevation of 4,800 feet (1,463 m) and flows generally south for 10 miles (16 km) to the Pacific Ocean at Rincon Point draining a watershed of 9,352 acres (3,785 ha), about 12 miles (19 km) northwest of Ventura and 3 miles (5 km) southeast of Carpinteria, California. Rincon Creek flows through a large culvert under U.S. Route 101 and then forms a small lagoon at the creek mouth. The size of the lagoon is dependent on rainfall, the season, tides, and wave height. Rincon Point is on the Santa Barbara Channel which forms the northwestern section of the Southern California Bight. The name is the Spanish word for ‘angle’ or ‘corner’. The coast at Rincon Point is characterized by a narrow low-relief terrace backed by steep coastal bluffs leading to the Santa Ynez Mountains. The bedrock is a sedimentary geologic unit of Early Miocene age called the Rincon Formation that consists of massive to poorly bedded shale, mudstone, and siltstone. The rock weathers quickly creating a rounded hilly topography with clay-based soils in which landslides and slumps are frequent. This part of the Southern California Bight is relatively well protected from large Pacific swells from the north and northwest by Point Conception and from the south and southwest by the Channel Islands. The net sediment transport is from northwest to southeast along the coast. Rincon Point consists of coarse-grained sediments, predominantly boulder in size, deposited during the late Holocene. A large sediment deposit extends 5,577 feet (1,700 m) offshore from Rincon Point creating a convex seafloor consisting primarily of boulders. Wave action has winnowed the fine particles leaving a boulder armor on the seafloor that is relatively resistant to erosion. The boulders may have been deposited in a shallow marine or alluvial environment when the sea level was lower in the late Pleistocene. Rincon Point is a well-known surfing destination with three world-class breaks including The Cove, Rivermouth, and Indicator. The waves develop across the relatively flat and shallow continental shelf in the Santa Barbara Channel and are then amplified by the submerged delta at Rincon Point.

The Chumash people historically inhabited the land between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the coast between San Luis Obispo to the north and Malibu Canyon to the south. The Chumash were living in their traditional territory by roughly 1000. In 1542, contact was established between the Chumash and the Spanish explorers Juan Cabrillo and Bartolomé Ferrer. Relations were amicable, and although the Spanish soon began using the Santa Barbara Channel as a stopover for their trans-Pacific voyages, early impact on the Chumash was minimal. In 1769, the Spanish Portolà expedition came to Rincon Point from the previous night’s encampment about 6 miles (10 km) along the beach to the southeast at Pitas Point. The explorers found a large Chumash village near the mouth of Rincon Creek and camped nearby. A second expedition in 1775, led by Juan Bautista de Anza camped at the same place, referring to the village as ‘La Rinconada’. In 1772, Franciscan missionaries built San Luis Obispo mission, and thereafter, other missions soon followed. For most of the Chumash the missions were places of slave labor. Influenza, smallpox, and syphilis devastated the population. Many refused to either give up their traditional ways or to be mistreated by the Spanish missionaries. In 1824, the Chumash revolted against the Spanish presence in their ancestral lands. The uprising was the largest organized resistance movement to occur during the colonization of Alta California. In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain and in 1834, seized control of the missions. In 1835, Rincon Point was included in a land grant of 4,431 acres (1,793 ha) called Rancho El Rincon.  The grant extended along the coast and encompassed present-day Rincon Point, Rincon State Beach, and La Conchita. The Chumash either fled into the interior, attempted agriculture but were eventually driven off the land, or were enslaved by the new administrators. After 1849, most Chumash land was lost to theft by American settlers and a declining Native population mainly as a result of violence and dis­ease. In 1855, 120 acres (49 ha) was set aside for just over 100 remaining Chu­mash Indians near Santa Ynez mission and this ulti­mately became the only Chumash reservation. Today, Rincon Point is located along a major traffic corridor that includes U.S. Route 101 and the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner railway. There is a gated residential community that occupies most of the Rincon beachfront, and the creek is known to carry high levels of bacteria into the surf zone during heavy rains resulting in occasional beach closures.

Rincon Creek was historically a habitat for steelhead trout that migrated each spring to the upper watershed to spawn. A steelhead trout is an anadromous form of the coastal rainbow trout that usually returns to freshwater to spawn after living two to three years in the ocean. Steelhead populations have declined drastically as impacts from human activities have altered the Rincon Creek watershed. Those impacts include culverts as barriers to upstream passage, loss of native vegetation and introduction of non-native plants, increased scouring of creekbeds and streambanks, diversions of streamflow and groundwater for irrigation, modifications to the creek channel and streambanks, and degraded water quality because of nutrient, sediment and other polluted runoff from agricultural and residential development. Rincon Creek flows under Highway 101 through a culvert which is an impassable barrier for fish migration only 0.2 miles (0.3 km) upstream from the river mouth. To address concerns about the health of the watershed, local landowners and resource agencies formed the Rincon Creek Watershed Council to develop a watershed restoration plan. In 2005, they developed a list of key issues that were used to guide the collection of data during development of the watershed plan. Data was subsequently collected on water quality, bank erosion, non-native vegetation, and steelhead habitat and migration. Results indicated that Rincon Creek contains fair, good, and very good steelhead habitat, but that the habitat is located upstream of the Highway 101 culvert. The water quality parameters were within the ranges previously reported for other southern California streams that are known to support steelhead populations. Bank erosion along Casitas Creek, the main tributary to Rincon Creek, contributes to highly turbid water and fine sediment deposition on the creek bed that lowered steelhead habitat quality. Other results indicate that projects to eradicate non-native, invasive plant species and restore the riparian corridor would improve watershed health by increasing the quality and availability of riparian habitat and attracting native wildlife. In 2007, the Rincon Creek Watershed Restoration Plan was finalized and for steelhead restoration, the highest priority was remediation of the Highway 101 culvert for steelhead passage. Read more here and here. Explore more of Rincon Point here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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