The mouth of the Goleta Slough has been silted over all summer, trapping fish and attracting mosquitoes and increasing numbers of birds hard by the Santa Barbara Airport.
No one has the authority to open the slough’s mouth anymore, since the Santa Barbara County Flood Control District’s permit expired last year, according to Andrew Bermond, project planner at the airport.
The slough makes up about half of the airport property, and Bermond said the county had managed an open channel to the ocean for nearly 30 years.
When the county recently sought to renew its permit, however, it ran into National Marine Fisheries Service concerns about negatively affecting endangered steelhead trout in the slough. As a result, Bermond said, the Flood Control District dropped the slough mouth element from its permits altogether.
That has resulted in two emergency permits to drain the slough as a result of high water levels and dangerous numbers of migratory water fowl such as ducks and geese. There was an emergency breach in December — which opened the mouth in hours — and a slower, less-effective siphon in May.
Those are temporary solutions, so City of Santa Barbara staff members are working with a consulting firm to develop a biological assessment and long-term management strategy.
“At the moment, since there’s no strategy and no pressing emergency, it’s just left to nature’s whim,” Bermond told Noozhawk.
There have been major issues with attracting wildlife — birds near an airport make for dangerous conditions for airplanes — and mosquitoes.
“Over the summer, we’ve had a much higher mosquito population in the Goleta Slough than we’ve ever had,” Bermond said.
The county’s Mosquito and Vector Management District spent a lot of time and money trying to abate the problem, and even UC Santa Barbara officials have been calling about an increase in mosquitoes on campus.
If there’s a heavy rainy season, the slough mouth could open and close several times before next spring, officials say.
“It’s a problem that can very well solve itself before it shows up again,” said Bermond, explaining why there has not been a more aggressive pursuit of another emergency permit.
Studies will be completed around February and the Goleta Slough Management Committee — a stakeholder group — will decide what plan to pitch to resource agencies such as the National Marine Fisheries Service and state and federal fish and game departments.
The goal is to put someone in charge of identifying when there’s a need to open the slough mouth and decide the protocol to do it.
“We’re trying to design it to be flexible, because I don’t think anyone knows the perfect answer yet,” Bermond said. “We don’t want to kill off a whole bunch of fish just to get rid of birds.”
When the Flood Control District first started getting the permits with slough mouth management, the steelhead trout and tidewater goby weren’t endangered, so impacts on those species weren’t considered.
The City of Santa Barbara, the State Coastal Conservancy, the Goleta Valley Land Trust and the Goleta West Sanitary District pitched in to fund the consulting contract for long-term slough management.
The high water has also affected Goleta’s San Jose Creek project. To keep the creek bed dry enough for construction, the contractor had to install an inflatable barrier — as a temporary dam — and then pump the water out of the upstream side, said Rosemarie Gaglione, capital improvement program manager.
Fish and Wildlife biologists and others came to help move trout and other critters that ended up on the wrong side, she added.
The siphon helped lower the water levels so the city used a smaller aqua barrier, but “it would have been nice if the slough had been lower,” she said. The higher water levels also brought in a nesting grebe, so the city had to wait six days for it to leave the nest for that particular area’s construction, she added.
All the in-creek work for the San Jose Creek project's Phase I — the creek capacity and fish passage portion — should be finished within the next month. The Hollister Avenue Bridge replacement project will take about two years and is scheduled to start immediately afterward.