Storms, water district give hope to endangered San Diego County arroyo toad species

San Diego County is home to the largest population of arroyo toads, which are not off the endangered species list yet — but hope is growing

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An endangered toad in San Diego’s East County is having a bit of a resurgence thanks to a couple of storms like Hilary and a large hole in the bottom of a dam.

“This is perfect habitat for the arroyo toad,” said Sweetwater Authority Biologist Pete Famolaro while standing in a Sweetwater River watershed near the Loveland Reservoir.

“They’re probably about the size of a penny,” said Famolaro while holding the tip of his index finger to the base of his thumb.

Famolaro said he’s studied the arroyo toad since the 1990s when it first became apparent the species was endangered. The fact that California is regularly hampered by drought doesn’t help.

“They need water in order to breed and that’s what ties us to the river, is their need to breed,” he explained.

Famolaro said a water transfer from the Loveland Reservoir in November got the ball rolling. A valve at the base of the Loveland Dam was opened. Millions of gallons of water were released into the Sweetwater River watershed to head downhill to the Sweetwater Reservoir 17 miles away. The Sweetwater Authority said transfers like the one in November and a secondary one in the winter saved ratepayers $11 million.

The water transfer saturated the ground, which allowed unexpected heavy winter rains to create an environment ideal for arroyo toad breeding.

“It was really exciting to see that,” said Dr. Robert Fisher, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey – Western Ecological Research Center.

Fisher and Famolaro have studied the toad together for years.

“This toad is very specific to Southern California and to these breeding sites,” said Dr. Fisher. “The largest populations left in the United States are in San Diego County.”

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They found the timing of the water transfers and a healthy winter gave the toads enough water and time to replenish their numbers in the watershed -- not enough to take them off the endangered species list, but enough to give them hope.

“[The watershed] was occupied by toads and by phenomenal numbers of toad,” smiled Fisher.

“I was like, ‘Wow. We finally found a solution. We finally found something that worked,’” agreed Famolaro.

“Let’s think about reestablishing them back in places where they used to be,” concluded Fisher.

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