Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead
Source: Environmental Defense Center
[On Tuesday], the Environmental Defense Center (“EDC”) on behalf of California Trout, Inc. (“CalTrout”) secured a major victory for Southern California steelhead on the Santa Ynez River in Santa Barbara County. After nearly 20 years of working together to compel the State Water Resources Control Board (“the Board”) to order improved management of Bradbury Dam and the Cachuma Reservoir, the Board adopted a significant Order requiring improved water flows and critical studies to benefit endangered steelhead such as the potential for fish passage over the Dam and other improvements to habitat. This important Order will help restore the Santa Ynez River watershed for wildlife, recreation, and other uses.
“The Order marks a significant and historic milestone. For the first time since construction of Bradbury Dam in the 1950s, the Cachuma Project will now be operated to restore and protect the critically-imperiled Southern California steelhead in the Santa Ynez River,” said Maggie Hall of the Environmental Defense Center.
“The Santa Ynez River steelhead population – once the largest in southern California – was nearly wiped out by the Cachuma Project and only 1% of the population remains,” said Brian Trautwein, EDC Environmental Analyst and Watershed Program Coordinator. “The Order charts a path forward to a future in which steelhead can thrive and we can have an ample water supply for future generations.”
“Southern California steelhead are critically endangered – once a steelhead stronghold, the Santa Ynez River population of steelhead plummeted after Bradbury Dam was constructed. We are optimistic that today’s Order will help recover the species,” said Russell Marlow of California Trout.
Since the construction of Bradbury Dam, the steelhead population in the Santa Ynez River has plummeted by over ninety-nine percent. Bradbury Dam blocks migration of this magnificent fish to its spawning grounds in the headwaters of the Santa Ynez and its tributaries. Consequently, steelhead simply cannot find their way home and thus cannot reproduce in sufficient numbers to sustain their population. In addition, the very small numbers of steelhead that manage to persist below the dam are provided only meager amounts of water, as Bradbury Dam has been operated to maximize municipal and agricultural uses of Santa Ynez River water. This has exacted a heavy toll on the watershed and the wildlife dependent upon it.
Board Member Tam M. Doduc, who served as the hearing officer in this proceeding, commented during the Board’s public deliberations, “Nobody wants to deliberately extinguish a species.” In expressing her support of the Order she said, “Let’s put our best foot forward and at least try our best to help this species survive.”
The groups applaud the Board’s recognition of the need for habitat improvements for the critically imperiled remnant population of steelhead in the Santa Ynez River. The process began in 1987 in response to a protest of the Bureau of Reclamation water rights permits for operation of the Cachuma Project, and EDC has represented CalTrout in these proceedings since 2000. The groups participated in evidentiary hearings in 2003 in which they put forth evidence demonstrating what flow requirements and other measures are necessary to protect public trust resources, and what water conservation measures could be implemented to minimize impacts—identifying that 5,000-7,000 acre feet of water per year could be saved using existing technologies.
Today’s Order adopts many of the requirements that CalTrout and EDC have supported for decades. These include: 1) the adoption of improved flows; 2) studies to verify the effects of flows and how flows can be conjunctively used with releases for downstream water users; 3) additional studies to assess the condition of steelhead in the River, such as fish passage, and additional habitat needs; 4) and an adaptive management approach to implementation of the Order. The Order recognizes that during drought conditions, water releases will need to be reduced. The Order also recommends further considerations for water conservation measures that will benefit both our communities and steelhead.
Before 1950, steelhead were abundant in the Santa Ynez River, with an estimated population of 13,000 to 30,000 fish. The current estimated run size for the Santa Ynez River, combined with five other rivers and streams, is currently less than 200 fish, underscoring the species’ continuing dire condition under current management efforts. The Board’s Order recognizes that it is necessary to protect and improve the condition of the “remnant imperiled Steelhead fishery in the Santa Ynez River.”
Southern California steelhead are a form of rainbow trout that spawn in coastal streams in Southern California before migrating to the Pacific Ocean to mature. The fish has evolved over the millennia to tolerate the region’s warmer freshwater – a genetic trait, which could prove vital to the survival of steelhead populations throughout the world as ocean temperatures rise due to climate change. Because they are particularly sensitive to water quality and temperature, steelhead are a critical indicator of the overall health of a watershed.