Gaviota Steelhead Endangered by State Park’s Failure to Follow Permit Requirements
By the Coastal Ranches Conservancy
On September 13, 2022, Coastal Ranches Conservancy served a petition for writ of mandate seeking a Court order requiring California Department of Parks and Recreation to perform long-promised environmental mitigation. This mitigation is required by two separate coastal development permits issued for Gaviota State Park in the 1990’s. These permits require that State Parks: 1) Perform the restoration of the Gaviota Creek estuary, and 2) Use well water as their water source instead of diverting water from a local spring during the summertime.
Coastal Ranches Conservancy recently discovered that the State Parks has never complied with either of these requirements of their Coastal Development Permits. The 1992 Permit allowed the Park to undergo a total rehabilitation by building new campsites, a new parking lot, and new bathroom and concession buildings. The 1998 permit was for construction of a new water system serving both the Park and nearby Caltrans roadside rest areas. Mitigation for both projects were proposed by State Parks to address impacts to wetlands and Gaviota Creek’s multiple endangered species, like the Southern California Steelhead. The population of Southern California Steelhead is believed to have declined by 80% over the past 25 years. The State Park was issued their permits contingent on taking measures to protect this species and has failed to do so. Now experts say the fish is on the verge of extinction.
Gaviota Creek Watershed Restoration Background
The Gaviota Coast is a 74-mile-long stretch of largely-undeveloped California coastline, heralded for its rich biodiversity and number of endemic species. Gaviota State Park and Gaviota Creek are located at the point where Highway 101 turns inland and leaves the coastline.
One of the primary elements of Coastal Ranches Conservancy’s restoration work has been to work with Caltrans to remove the barriers to Southern California Steelhead migration in the creek. The creek currently has a small population of reproducing steelhead, see here. Caltrans has begun the engineering to remove the fish passage barriers, an effort that will likely cost more than $20 million to complete. However, this effort alone is not enough to protect the Steelhead – State Parks must follow through with their legal requirements under their permits, as well.
In this time of drought and climate change, there are few locations in southern California where steelhead can find good flows of cool stream water and easy access to the ocean through a lagoon that offers rearing habitat for the young smolts. Gaviota Creek has the potential to provide both these conditions, which is why it has been designated a high priority in the Federal Recovery Plan for this endangered species. Unfortunately, Gaviota State Park’s diversion of spring water during the dry season and failure to restore the estuary, required by their coastal permits as described above, threatens the survival of Southern California Steelhead.
According to Kim Kimbell, President of the Coastal Ranches Conservancy, “Any State Park project under CEQA, just like those of a private party, must do everything possible to mitigate harm to the environment. These two permits were written to do exactly that, but until we came along, no one knew that Parks was not following their permit requirements. And when we pointed the problem out to Parks, they failed to act. We felt we had no choice but to ask the courts to step in as the statute of limitations was about to expire.”
Doug Campbell, Executive Director of the Conservancy, said: “State Parks’ stated mission is ‘To provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state's extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources, and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation.’ At Gaviota State Park, State Parks has forgotten half of that mission. We need the Park to carry out their legal responsibilities to protect the steelhead and, so far, they have not. The steelhead have suffered the consequences.”
The petition filed by Coastal Ranches Conservancy simply asks that the court enforce the original 1992 and 1998 permit conditions requiring the State Parks to restore the Gaviota Creek estuary and use well- water for their summer water source – both conditions of the permits being granted that have not yet been fulfilled.