A 30-inch adult steelhead trout in Mission Creek photographed in 2008.

Mark Capelli

A 30-inch adult steelhead trout in Mission Creek photographed in 2008.

Council, Steelhead Swim Upstream

Invasive Species, Bureaucratic Infighting, and Blown Deadlines Impede Trout Recovery Effort

Wednesday, January 16, 2013
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It was a relatively simple matter to push steelhead trout to the verge of extinction, but it’s proven far more challenging — both technically and bureaucratically — to bring them back, an object lesson the Santa Barbara City Council learned the hard way this Tuesday. The council approved spending $235,000 more than it planned to this year to cover its share of expensive biological studies on the once bountiful steelhead in the Santa Ynez River — and its creeks — below Lake Cachuma, the major source of the South Coast’s water supplies.

The increased expenditure came at the insistence of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act where steelhead are concerned. The City of Santa Barbara will join with the Montecito and Goleta Water districts to spend a total of half-a-million bucks on a new biological survey to determine how many steelhead and rainbow trout — rainbows are genetically identical to the steelhead, only they have not yet gone out to sea — are in the Santa Ynez below the dam, what predators and obstacles they face, and how the basic morphology of the river has changed in ways that might impinge upon the steelhead life cycle.

Although a similar study was completed in 1997 — the steelhead were declared endangered in 1994 — the responsible agency, Cachuma Conservation Release Board, was ordered to conduct a new one after it failed to clear obstacles blocking many of the creeks feeding into the river’s main stem according to federal deadlines. Many landowners with properties along the river, it turned out, refused to allow the clearing to take place.

Aside from Councilmmember Cathy Murillo — who objected that no fish ladders were envisioned in any of the restoration plans to take the steelhead to the historic spawning grounds above the dam — the rest of the council endorsed the expenditure. Councilmember Grant House expressed incredulity at the extent to which it appeared the steelhead were being studied to death. No fewer than five environmental impact reports have been completed on how municipal and agricultural interests that rely on the Santa Ynez can and should share their water supplies with the fish.

Those studies are the focus of a different jurisdictional tug-of-war, however, pitting the Cachuma Conservation board against the California Water Resources Control Board. Although that agency held a full-fledged administrative trial in 2004 to determine how the water rights should be divvied up and the fish habitat restored, no final ruling has yet been issued. Although water agencies have been releasing water down the Santa Ynez in varying quantities since 1997, they’ve been loath to surrender any of their water rights.

In a related manner, the City of Santa Barbara has been releasing just enough water down the upper stretches of Mission Creek to maintain a surface stream during summer months from the Mission Tunnel to the Natural History Museum for nearly 10 years. When it stopped two years ago, state and federal agencies found themselves called in to conduct several steelhead relocation efforts to save trapped steelhead. City water czar Rebecca Bjork explained that the Mission Tunnel release was designed to recharge the subsurface storage basin and that the benefit to the steelhead was only secondary. The basin, she added, is now full.

She also noted that the release of water from Mission Tunnel — which generates about 1,000 acre-feet of water a year — brought with it invasive species like the green sunfish and crawfish, both of which could prove legally and biologically troublesome for the steelhead, a federally endangered species. Bjork said she approached state and federal agencies with enforcement authority over endangered species, offering to all but give them the water to release down Mission Creek. That way, she said, they could take responsibility for any legal challenges. Both, she said, declined.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

I actually agree with Murillo on this one. If they aren't going to plan for a way to get the fish to and from their original spawning habitat then more studies seems like a waste of time and money.

Num1UofAn (anonymous profile)
January 16, 2013 at 9:46 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I watched this city council meeting and I did not hear anyone mention a "fish ladder" around Bradbury Dam. However, various methods for Santa Ynez River have been discussed for years in addition to constructing a side channel that steelhead could swim up and surf down, or other methods like "trap and truck" which has been used successfully in northern California.

As for the city water czar(ina) mentioned, she and her legal team should be (or actually are) smart enough to understand that the state and federal agencies cannot accept legal responsibility for harm to endangered fish if the action that might harm ("take") the fish is caused by someone else. In this case for Mission Creek, the city would be the decider that would be directly doing the action to send the Mission Creek water into the real creek channel versus the water supply reservoir. This seems like the city will no longer be able to duck and hide this issue about diversions of Mission Creek water without a permit or endangered species consultation, both of which are required under state and federal law.

I also heard during this city meeting that two or three of the council members want a detailed discussion of all this at a future meeting, to get to the bottom of the hidden questions of who is doing what -or not- for Mission Creek. During the last couple of years, no one at the city seemed to have cared, but maybe not any more?

Besides, with all that time and money, blood sweat and tears, the city has expended during the past few years to make the lower downtown section of Mission Creek friendly to fish passage, we taxpayers and voters just might want the rest of the creek to be good and hospitable to the endangered steelhead that finally can swim up and down the creek. We also want that investment boosted so more tourists can see the steelhead downtown.

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
January 16, 2013 at 10:06 a.m. (Suggest removal)

A fish ladder or trapping and hauling steelhead around Bradbury Dam will not lead to recovery of a sustainable population and will not enable them to be delisted. See this recent study blasting such short-term band-aid fixes:

Such fish passage options also fail to address water quality degradation, non-native species, and wasted water caused by the dams. Similarly, there is not enough habitat downstream Bradbury Dam (Cachuma Reservoir) to support a viable wild steelhead population or restore the lost nutrients these annual runs of fish swam up the entire watershed and tributaries for other species to thrive on, including humans.

There are 3 large dams and reservoirs on the river:

Gibraltar Reservoir is over 60% filled in with sediment and is projected to be filled in with sediment before 2030.

Jamison Reservoir is filling in with sediment quickly as well.

Cachuma Reservoir is filling in with sediment more quickly each year as upstream dams fill in and pass more sediment downstream to be trapped there. Cachuma Reservoir currently losses approximately 450 acre feet of water storage per year due to sedimentation and losses approximately 16,000 acre feet per year due to evaporation from the reservoir.

Every time it rains, and the river carries sediment downstream, these reservoirs trap the sediment and loss water storage capacity and our regional water reliability is compromised. The long-term solution for steelhead AND our water future is to invest in groundwater recharge and storage (no water losses due to annual sedimentation or evaporation), off-stream storage, water conservation measures, and water efficiency measures to offset the need for the dams and then remove them.

Such a plan can be implemented over the course of the next few decades, support local jobs, and result in a more reliable water supply, free flowing river, and recovered steelhead population. There is no quick fix and a long-term vision must be developed or we're all fish out of water.

valerio (anonymous profile)
January 17, 2013 at 5:05 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The steelhead in Mission Creek were starting to come back over the last 13 years when the City released water into the creek - at the request of the Department of Fish and Game. The releases are necessary because the City's Mission Tunnel intercepts water in the Mission Creek basin, causing the Creek in Mission Canyon to go dry early each year. Historian Walker Thompkins documented this; "Fern Falls" went dry after the Tunnel was bored. The releases also recharge the City's groundwater.

Last year the City's water supply czar ordered the releases shut off and, while some of the federally-endangered fish were rescued by federal and state biologists, some died in pools that went dry. These young fish were only several inches long.

Until this recent setback, for almost a decade, the City Creeks Division and partners including EDC, have worked together tirelessly to bring more steelhead back into the City, to add to our City's beautiful ambiance. It is unfortunate that despite all these years of work, the City water supply staff would let the creek run dry.

There is hope. The creek is flowing. Some fish are still alive. With continued hard work and cooperation, steelhead recovery in Mission Creek will continue to be successful.

The Santa Ynez River had the largest steelhead run in southern California, double any other river's run size (20,000 steelhead). When Bradbury Dam (Cachuma Reservoir) was built in 1954, the population dropped by 99%. The dam blocks the steelhead migration to virtually all the good habitat in the river. As a result, on a good year they observe only 16 steelhead in the river.

For 20 years the water agencies, including the City water supply staff, have argued that they are protecting steelhead, yet the steelhead population has not increased. Passage over Bradbury Dam is necessary to get the steelhead back to their spawning grounds - but the City and other water agencies have spent millions of ratepayer dollars on studies that fail to evaluate real solutions, on lawyers to fight real progress, and on PR to convince people that 16 steelhead is a healthy population.

Once again, the City has approved more money to fight Santa Ynez River Steelhead restoration. The Environmental Defense Center and CalTrout, along with California Fish and Wildlife and NOAA are working towards real progress. Check out EDC's website for more info. Hopefully, like Murrillo suggested, the City water supply department will help rather than block steelhead recovery.

goleta43 (anonymous profile)
January 18, 2013 at 8:56 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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