Sixteen years of hearings and environmental reports later, the State Water Resources Control Board has put out a draft order requiring additional water flows from Lake Cachuma into the Santa Ynez River to help endangered steelhead trout.
The proposed order is a modified version of a CalTrout proposal, found in the same environmental impact report as the current requirements for fish water releases, said Dale Francisco, interim general manager of Cachuma Conservation Release Board.
The CCRB represents the Cachuma Project member agencies – Goleta, Santa Barbara, Montecito and Carpinteria – and was one of several agencies that sent a comment letter to the state board opposing the increased releases called for in the proposed order.
The Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District No. 1 wrote in its comment letter that Alternative 5C “is not legally or scientifically supportable.”
The additional releases below Bradbury Dam would only be required during wet or normal rainfall years, but that could still cause less water storage – and exacerbate shortages – going into a dry period, the state board noted in its order.
The Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District and ID No. 1 are both concerned about the impact to their downstream water releases and accumulation of credits for those releases.
They argue in the comment letters, as does CCRB, that the additional flows are unstudied and will increase the populations of bass and beavers, both steelhead predators.
Water releases for steelhead are already required by the 2000 biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service, but the population hasn’t recovered, the state board said in a statement.
Higher flows are “likely to benefit” the steelhead population – but not by themselves, according to the board’s analysis.
“Although additional flows are necessary, the evidence in the record is unsupportive that solely increasing flows will be sufficient to restore the steelhead fishery,” the draft order says.
The NMFS, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would be required to study the impacts of the higher flows to see if they’re helping, and if any changes would make them more beneficial.
The Bureau of Reclamation would be ordered to study additional measures that may be necessary to help the fishery, including building a fish passage around Bradbury Dam.
“If they’re going to have studies, you would think the studies would come first and the result would come later – but they want to put 5C in place and study it, instead of the other way around, when I don’t think they adequately studied 3C,” said Bruce Wales, general manager of the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District.
The Southern California Distinct Population Segment of steelhead trout is an endangered species, and the once-prolific population in the Santa Ynez River has dropped to fewer than 100 fish since the Bradbury Dam was constructed, the state board wrote.
Anadromous steelhead have unique lifecycles during which they are born in freshwater streams, later swim to the ocean to mature, and return to fresh water to reproduce.
The more perennial flow for the Santa Ynez River with fish releases has “created an environment that’s toxic for steelhead,” Francisco said.
During a rescue effort of the long pool in the Santa Ynez River, people found thousands of bass and no steelhead, he said.
CCRB has focused on creating additional steelhead habitat in the Santa Ynez River’s tributaries, including Salsipuedes Creek, but that’s not mentioned in any of the state board considerations, he said.
Bringing back the steelhead population could take decades, and the current model of flows, the 3C alternative in the EIR, needs more time and analysis, he said.
“These flows have only been in effect for 15 years, and the last five of those 15 have been the worst drought in history,” Francisco said. “Even if we started with a healthy population it wouldn’t be very healthy right now.”
“Well, the final flows in the river now started in 2005, and by 2011 we’re in a drought. That’s barely time for one generation of steelhead to turn over, and then the worst drought in recent history,” Wales said.
“That’s the time frame the state board used to determine the current situation was not working and they needed to put more water in the river.”
There is no evidence the Alternative 5C will help the steelhead population, but there is evidence that Alternative 5C, if adopted, would harm steelhead by promoting the growth of non-native species – particularly bass, CCRB wrote in the comment letter.
“If approved, the Draft Order’s mandate that Reclamation release substantially larger amounts of water in order to create merely speculative benefits for steelhead will further strain the CCRB members’ already-stressed water supplies based on questionable reasoning and no substantial evidentiary support,” the letter says.
“As a consequence, the Draft Order violates the ‘reasonable use’ requirement of Article X Section 2 of the California Constitution by requiring substantial additional releases of water from Bradbury Dam based on benefits to steelhead that are wholly speculative and unsupported in the record.”
The Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District also submitted a critical comment letter to the state board. The district is not a Cachuma Project beneficiary, but manages the downstream water rights given by a 2002 settlement agreement
General manager Bruce Wales explained that the district accumulates credits if the river is dry at certain points when there is inflow into Lake Cachuma. Most of the credit comes for the above-narrows area, not the below-narrows area, closer to the Lompoc Plain, he said.
“By picking alternative 5C and allowing the above-narrows area to have more water in it more often, which you would think would be a good thing for us, it’s actually not a good thing for us because it artificially fills up the basin at the wrong time, and we do not get credits.”
The district used its credits to build up a reserve before the drought, but they are mostly expended now, Wales said.
“Unless there’s recharge into the reservoir, nobody gets anything. We are basically out of credits. We have no more water from a practical standpoint to release.”
One thing the SYRCD likes about the draft order is incorporating some conditions of the 2002 settlement agreement in terms of water quality and quantity, which the district had asked for.
The comment deadline on the draft order was Dec. 9, and the state board will consider the comments and release a final order, which is expected to take several months.
In the meantime, the process has started for a new biological opinion from NMFS which could again change the rules for fish releases.
CCRB expects the NMFS biological opinion to have even harsher requirements than the state board’s final order, Francisco said. “If it’s as drastic as we think it will be, there’s a chance a party would take it to court.”
— Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.