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Matt Stoecker transforms a love of creeks into life's work as a conservation biologist

As a child in Portola Valley, Matt Stoecker spent every free moment he could exploring and playing in Corte Madera Creek.

"My two older brothers and I ... would go down to Corte Madera Creek and we would fish for rainbow trout and we would make floats." Some of those rafts were boogie boards that they would float down the creek on.

As the boys got older they explored more and more of the creek, upstream and down.

Mr. Stoecker is now 39, but his passion for creeks, rivers and streams, and the life within and around them, remains. In fact, that passion was transformed into his life's work as a conservation biologist specializing in the restoration of riparian habitats and steelhead trout.

The moment of that transformation is clear to him, and even though it happened two decades ago, he remembers it as if it were last week.

"One day we were going down the creek, within its cool tunnel underneath a canopy of trees, and all of sudden it just ended," he says.

The creek had hit a literal wall, the 65-foot tall Searsville Dam.

"The clear creek disappeared into this big brown stagnant reservoir," Mr. Stoecker says. "We hiked around the reservoir and got back into the creek and hiked back up to the dam, to this 65-foot tall wall of concrete," he says.

It was late winter or early spring, he says, with water cascading down the dam steps. "All of sudden this fish the size of my arm jumps out of the water, four or five feet into the air, and smashes its head against the concrete wall, and bounces off backwards into the pool," he says.

Mr. Stoecker and his companions, he says, had never seen such a thing in their years on the creek. "We were all just shocked and didn't know quite what to make of it," he says.

"That's when I really started looking into it because I knew something was wrong," he says.

That fish, and others he saw hurling themselves against the dam, was a steelhead trout, the ocean-going form of the much smaller rainbow trout he and his brothers had fished in the creek.

He discovered that Searsville Dam, built in 1892 and owned by Stanford University since 1919, was blocking the steelhead from migrating to their ancestral spawning grounds in the Portola Valley area. The rainbows, trapped on the other side of the dam for more than 100 years, had not been able to reach San Francisco Bay, and then the Pacific Ocean, to take on their ocean-going form.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, Mr. Stoecker studied biology, specializing in fisheries and stream biology. For his thesis project, he looked at how to restore creeks and streams in southern Santa Barbara County for the endangered steelhead. The thesis became a grant proposal, which was funded, and after completion of the project, turned into a business. Stoecker Ecological specializes in habitat and fisheries assessment and watershed recovery projects.

"I've never grown out of being interested in the creeks never will," says Mr. Stoecker.

Three years ago, that interest took on yet another form, when Mr. Stoecker and Yvon Chouinard, founder of the outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia, decided to make a documentary about a passion directly connected to both of their efforts in restoring steelhead and salmon habitat - dam removal.

The product of their collaboration, the 87-minute documentary "DamNation," was released early this year and has since won at least 10 awards, including the South by Southwest Film Festival's Audience Choice Award and an Environmental Advocacy Award from the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital.

"There's been over a thousand dams removed over the past few decades," Mr. Stoecker says. "Every summer there's more and more dams coming out."

Underwater photography is another of Mr. Stoecker's passions. He has a Canon camera with a customized aluminum housing weighing nearly 30 pounds, which he used to take photos and shoot footage for "DamNation."

That experience two decades ago also persuaded Mr. Stoecker to try to convince Stanford University to remove Searsville Dam. In 2006 he founded the organization Beyond Searsville Dam, which he serves as director. He also serves on the Searsville Advisory Group, which includes environmentalists and representatives of communities that could be affected by removal of the dam. Stanford also has an internal steering committee that is supposed to make a recommendation by the end of this year on the fate of the dam and reservoir, which Stanford has said is about 90 percent filled-in with sediment.

In Portola Valley, Mr. Stoecker helped persuade the town to restore a section of Sausal Creek on the Town Center property. The creek had been confined to an underground culvert for decades.

"When we were kids, we used to dare each other to crawl through it," he says, admitting that he did indeed crawl approximately 700 feet through the culvert.

Once a 350-foot section of Sausal Creek was uncovered about seven years ago, it rapidly returned to a natural state, Mr. Stoecker says, with help from volunteers who put in native plants donated by Acterra.

"Within a year of the free flow coming back through here, there were already frogs, and ducks nesting, and willows recolonizing the banks on their own," he says.

What happened on Sausal Creek only reaffirms the vision he has for Corte Madera Creek. One day, he says, with Searsville Dam gone, hikers bound for Windy Hill will be able to watch steelhead spawning in the creek. "In the wintertime they're going to see 30- to-35-inch silver steelhead fresh in from the Pacific," he says.

For now, Corte Madera Creek is still a special place for Matt Stoecker. On a hot July day, he squats on a cool creek bank and points out more than a dozen rainbow trout, both tiny fry that hatched out this year and larger fish that have survived to their second year.

"These guys are amazing," he says.

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● Go to Beyond Searsville Dam for more information on that organization.

● Related story: Documentary chronicles history of dam building, removal.

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