Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead title=
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead
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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. 

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Red Creek Sep 22, 2019 10:20 PM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

The steelhead is a keystone species in the local environment, requiring riparian habitat that supports an aquatic chain of life from plants to invertebrates up to homo sapiens. Growing up in Central California, I can remember buying local steelhead in a grocery store as a student at Cal Poly, cheaper than hamburger and many more times delicious and healthy. The loss of this species is tragic and efforts to restore them is very good news.

Shasta Guy Sep 22, 2019 09:19 PM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

1950 SB County population: 98,220. 2018 SB County population: 446,257. Now if we exclude Santa Maria since it’s not in the Santa Ynez watershed, we get this. 1950: ~88,000, 2018: ~340,000. That means since the addition of Lake Cachuma in the early 50s, ~252,000 new people have come into the area to become consumers of the run off that feeds the Santa Ynez river. Unless all 340,000 of us can cut water usage to the same amount used by the 88,000 folks in 1950, which would be a ~75% reduction on a per capita basis, it’s going to be real difficult to find adequate water for the fish in the Santa Ynez river.

bigone Sep 21, 2019 11:56 AM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

When this article came out I immediately thought it would become a complex discussion about various socioeconomic and political implications that always surround environmental issues. I don't want to belabor either segment, but many of those venting against this decision know virtually nothing about the history of this fish, the Santa Barbara watersheds, and beyond. First, to state that the SY River could never support a steelhead population, even if the dam was removed or a fish ladder was installed, is ridiculous - there used to be thousands of these fish migrating to spawn in the river and it has plenty of water in an average year. Take a look at the old photos (many that used to be in Mattei's Tavern), as PITMIX mentioned. In fact, I have seen and actually caught a few small steelhead from their remnant populations (carefully released, of course) in tiny streams above Montecito and Carpenteria. Steelhead naturally ranged from northern California all the way down to streams below the Mexican border; semi-arid areas, not plentiful northern California and Pacific northwest watersheds, to be sure. Second, these type of complaints about what a waste it is of money and at a cost to taxpayers is inherent - there is always a cost associated with protecting the environment.; some of the statements about what the monetary costs will be make me cringe, as they are completely inaccurate. The question becomes, do we accept the fact it does cost money and we may have to give up conveniences that are not governed by natural laws, or do we continue to abuse the environment so we don't have to make sacrifices? When I think about the entire situation it really indicates that we just have too many people living here and from the political position, we have and have had a government that encourages population growth, both legal and illegal, that has essentially turned our beautiful state from San Francisco down to San Diego into a cesspool lacking many elements that ensure quality of life. Really, would you want your kids and grand kids to see and maybe even catch and release a few steelhead locally, or go an aquarium and tell them "We used to have a lot of these fish around here, but we didn't want to pay anything to ensure their survival"?

Lucky 777 Sep 21, 2019 08:54 AM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

The per-fish cost of this folly is such a boondoggle..... and anyone who spends time on the river knows it dries up and goes underground near Live Oak for big parts of the year. Thankfully the tax money will just be wasted on studies, there hasn't YET been a decision to rip into the river with culverts and make it like the LA River for the sake of a few dozen fish already going extinct.

bigone Sep 21, 2019 12:49 PM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

LUCKY 777. It doesn't matter that the river dries up - the smolts and parr have already moved down the river to the sea before that happens by mid-summer, as they do in every stream, creek, and river in southern California. Do you think there are no steelhead in watersheds even farther south of Santa Barbara (Matilija/Ventura, Malibu, Topanga, San Juan, San Onfre, San Dieguito, to name just a few) that dry up? Please get your facts straight before making statements that are not accurate.

Shasta Guy Sep 21, 2019 08:37 AM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

To provide enough water flow to accommodate the fish to its previous levels we probably would have to depopulate the watershed area and south coast by 75%. Who wants to sign up for that lottery, any takers?

Shasta Guy Sep 21, 2019 01:28 PM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

In general, to restore watersheds to support fish runs to their historical levels water use needs to go way down and in many instances the dams need to be removed. Getting rid of the dam and stopping ground water pumping in the Santa Ynez river basin would leave a lot less water for the people living here. Up in Northern California and Southern Oregon there is a serious movement to restore the Klamath River for salmon by removing four dams on the river. It will have a big impact for agriculture which depends on the water, flood control, and the loss of ~170MW of electrical generation from the four hydro dams.

Shasta Guy Sep 21, 2019 09:58 PM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

BigOne. To be perfectly honest, the 75% percent reduction was just an estimate of what life would be like without Cachuma. To restore the steelhead runs of yesteryear will require dam removal. To get the Santa Ynez to flow more normally will take getting the water table to rise to the level of the river. This means a lot less aquifer pumping for agriculture. Water and locally grown produce for 100,000 people or 20,000 fish that people won’t be allowed to consume. I really want both, but it’s a really bad trade off. It’s the same in Northern California: to restore the salmon and steelhead trout runs in all the tributaries of Lake Shasta will require the removal of Shasta Dam. Our lifestyle in CA needs lots of water per person. If you want more water for fish, then ban water softeners, RO systems, ban all landscape watering, no car washing, and limit showers to a couple times per week for starters. Make everyone have cisterns to catch rainwater during our wet season. That will free up a lot of cfs for fish.

bigone Sep 21, 2019 12:33 PM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

Shasta Guy - where do you get the idea and evidence that it would require a 75% reduction in water usage to ensure the survival of these sea-run rainbow trout? There was certainly enough water, thought to be a mean around 120 cfs in some studies, annually, for this unique species of steelhead to number up to an estimated 25,000 fish to move up the SY River before Bradbury Dam was completed in 1953. This particular subspecies evolved to survive water temperatures up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and, like many streams and creeks throughout the state, it did dry up by late summer in many years. This does not discourage the steelhead. The smolts migrate down to the ocean when flows become too low, and, if there is not sufficient water flow in the spring spawning season, the adults will move to steams where there is, namely farther north. Although not ideal, these fish need only six inches of water depth to spawn and two inches of substrate to built nests for eggs, and smolts can survive in two inches of water. Certainly in the spring when we have the most rainfall, I sincerely doubt that would require a 75% year-round reduction in our water supply to achieve this.

SBREADER Sep 21, 2019 02:19 AM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

Ridiculous waste of resources at a cost to the South Coast residents who pay for water of hundreds of millions of dollars. We proved long ago that the idea of passage over the Dam and through the Reservoir is not feasible but now we have to pay millions more "to study" the issue. If you really care about steelhead, use the money somewhere they may actually thrive, like up North where they have the water to make it happen. More wasteful use of our resources and I hope everyone appreciates it is us water paying Public who foots the bill.

behm.jason@gmail Sep 21, 2019 08:09 AM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

This is such a waste of time, money, and mindfulness... Sy River will never have a constant flow of water from Cachuma to Lompoc Beaches, I’ve lived around and recreated in this riverbed throughout my 45 years of life and there’s is not enough supply of water in Cachuma to ever flow the proper volume to contain a steelhead population...Thus area is known as semi arid region and our lacking of constant water cycles just will never allow this project to see fruition. I’m sorry but these preservationists just seem so mentally construed and irrational in their implementation of bringing a fishery back to a completely dried out riverbed like the few million dollars they spent on mission creek to create steelhead channels in order to perpetuate their fantasies of the fishery thriving all the way to the seven falls region of mission creek... ... I’m an environmentalist, and I think the public should focus on the major littering problem that our environment is taking on and all the trash in our watershed that is getting pumped into our oceans damaging our immediate food chains...Food for thought, Cheerio!!!

PitMix Sep 20, 2019 02:53 PM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

There used to be so many they could kill them with pitchforks. Their absence is an indication of how much we have mucked up our environment. If you look around at our society and see drug use, criminal activity, homelessness, and single parent families, does it seem to you that we are moving in the right direction?

a-1571479565 Sep 20, 2019 12:13 PM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

This is an interesting article and reminds me of conversations where some have even proposed to tear down Bradbury damn and move all of us to wells. I even read today on Edhat that the mountain lions were here before the Chumash so it should have more rights than modern humans. I do not share this sentiment but I am learning a lot about my human neighbors.

DBD Sep 20, 2019 12:03 PM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

So basically each fish is valued at $1,000,000 from the sound of the article, lol. Not to mention we are just out a very long drought, were everyone was forced to conserve and stuck with higher rates, but we are going to dump more water out of our reservoirs for the steelhead? Maybe its time to look into some breeding programs of some sort like they are able to do with many other fish species? Also, how similar is our steelhead to the steelhead you see for sale in many restaurants and grocery stores?

bigone Sep 20, 2019 11:57 AM
Victory on Santa Ynez River to Protect Endangered Steelhead

Good news and why I support CalTrout. With an ever-growing population in California that could care less or know anything about this sea-going trout, it's often a losing battle to protect Steelhead, but at least we can keep trying. The article should have pointed out that unlike Salmon, Steelhead don't need to return to the same stream in which they were spawned. Being opportunistic, they will go into any stream, river, or creek that is available to spawn, so the more we insure we have adequate water flow in every watershed, the better for the species.

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