SOMETHING’S FISHY: Scrawled into the foundation stone of every California water board — naturally in Latin — are high-minded-sounding phrases that mean, “First Come, First Served,” and “I Got Mine, Sucker.” These are the legal pillars upon which California water policy rests, which — along with the egregious but all too predictable lack of rainfall — explains why California’s water-supply system is beyond repair. One big problem, of course, is that our water rights in Santa Barbara County take a backseat to those of the steelhead trout. The steelhead is a seriously badass fish that first burst upon the scene six million years ago in some proto-caveman manifestation. Two million years ago, they evolved into what they are today, hardy enough to survive fire and ice, feast and famine, floods and droughts. And during their lives, every steelhead swims from its creek of origin out into the ocean where they transform themselves from Bruce Banners into Incredible Hulks. In other words, the steelhead were genetically designed to weather the viciously fickle extremes of Southern California, once the glaciers vacated the premises 12,000 years ago.
At that time, it should be noted, the Chumash had not yet become the Chumash, and the Spaniards — who would later “discover” Santa Barbara — were still squatting in their caves drawing mastodon graffiti on the walls. All was fine and dandy for the steelhead until 50 years ago, when T.M. Storke, Benign Big Boss Man of Santa Barbara, steamrolled the U.S. Congress into approving the construction of Bradbury Dam (a k a Lake Cachuma) on the Santa Ynez River. That dam, coupled with the creation of UCSB (another one of Storke’s political masterpieces) provided the foundation from whence sprang modern Santa Barbara, Goleta, Isla Vista, and — it goes without saying — Deltopia. (So many brain cells, so little time to kill them.) But the dam just happened to block the steelhead from their prime spawning grounds located further up the Santa Ynez River. The results were catastrophic. Once upon a time, 20,000 fish a year swam up the river from the ocean. Today, if we get 16, as we did in 2008, it’s cause for celebration.
All that, I recognize, is mere sentimentality. Giving the steelhead legally binding, ass-kicking water rights was hatched by an innovative law professor named Joseph Sax, who died a month ago. Thirty years ago, Sax perfected what’s known as the “public trust” doctrine, which holds California’s fish — as with its air and water — belong to all Californians and can’t be thrashed and trashed without legal recourse. As such, the courts ruled, steelhead must be protected from extinction. With that, water agencies had to at least pretend to care if their dams threaten steelhead with terminal cock-blockage. In 1997, the federal government jumped in, declaring the steelhead an officially endangered species. Theoretically, that means kill a fish, go to jail. In practice, it all depends who is doing the killing. I say that because in the past year, it turns out that the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns Cachuma, accidentally killed 180 steelhead on a half-mile stretch of Hilton Creek, located just spitting distance from the dam. I don’t want to whine about double standards, but if even one steelhead “accidentally” hitched itself to the hook dangling from my fishing pole, I’d be facing some serious time or a serious fine. If I wiped out 180 — maximum penalty 90 years in jail and $4.5 million fine — I’d be Son of Sam-meets-Silence of the Lambs.
Steelhead advocates insist the fish need to be physically moved up past the dam — trap-n-truck or fish ladders — for any meaningful restoration to take place. But in the meantime, Cachuma managers have gone to considerable expense and trouble to make Hilton Creek a perpetual Deltopia where steelhead can get hot and bothered all the time. They say their efforts have paid off, claiming 1,000 steelhead call Hilton Creek home. So they’re not buying the Bureau of Reclamation’s “accidents happen” defense. That’s in part because there have been eight, the first taking place October 25, 2012, the most recent, last Wednesday morning. To get steelhead in the mood, the Bureau of Reclamation pumps just enough water down a half-mile stretch of Hilton Creek to make their pheromones dance. The Bureau is supposed to have two pumps, just to make sure there are no problems. Turns out the backup pump doesn’t work at all and the main pump works only most of the time. But on eight occasions, the pump malfunctioned, the water stopped flowing, and the steelhead were stranded in mud. A couple of instances involved planned power outages that PG&E has announced in advance. In other instances, the pump just shut down. It’s twitchy and temperamental, it turns out, and only needs an uneven surge of power to shut down. Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board manager Randy Ward is getting a bit peeved. “This doesn’t require any high-tech fix,” he fumed. “You can go to RadioShack and get the equipment off the shelf.” According to Bureau spokesperson Margaret Gidding, it’s a bit more complicated. The pumps don’t reactivate automatically; they have to be manually turned back on. That requires someone to get in a boat and get to the barge where the pump is. And if the outages occur at night — as some have — Bureau protocol, requires that employees wait until dawn before undertaking so potentially perilous a task. As a result, Ward and his minions found themselves forced to wade into Hilton Creek at night — nocturnal immersions — in an effort to save stranded steelhead. To date, they’ve saved about 65. To get the pump replaced, a contract must be let. That takes time. When the contractor showed up to make the repairs, it turned out the problem was more extensive than initially thought. That required yet another contract to be let. And that took even more time. Sooner or later — like sometime this spring — the problem should be rectified. Until then, who knows how many power outages there might be.
In the meantime, if this van’s a rockin’, don’t drive too close. That’s ’cause I break for steelhead, sucker.