IT WAS THIS BIG:  Michael Jackson of the Bureau of Reclamation only looks like he's talking about the fish he didn't catch, but the meeting this Thursday between Bureau of Reclamation brass and South Coast water agencies drawing water from Lake Cachuma was all about endangered steelhead trout and how 800 were killed accidentally because of faulty pumps maintained by the bureau. To Jackson's left is Chris Dahlstrom, the GM at the water district in Santa Ynez, and to his right is Pablo Arroyave, Jackson's boss with the bureau.

Paul Wellman

IT WAS THIS BIG: Michael Jackson of the Bureau of Reclamation only looks like he's talking about the fish he didn't catch, but the meeting this Thursday between Bureau of Reclamation brass and South Coast water agencies drawing water from Lake Cachuma was all about endangered steelhead trout and how 800 were killed accidentally because of faulty pumps maintained by the bureau. To Jackson's left is Chris Dahlstrom, the GM at the water district in Santa Ynez, and to his right is Pablo Arroyave, Jackson's boss with the bureau.

Collective Chill Pill at Cachuma

Temperatures Rise as Water Supplies Dwindle

Friday, August 8, 2014
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Regional big wigs with the Bureau of Reclamation called an impromptu bureaucratic jam session with water agency chiefs throughout the South Coast this Thursday afternoon to riff collectively on the theme of “Kumbaya.” As Lake Cachuma’s water level has dropped to 34 percent capacity, tempers have flared among many of the water agencies representing the 200,000 residents who rely upon the reservoir — built and owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation — over chronic operational problems that in more aquatically abundant times wouldn’t be an issue at all.

In an effort to restore civility and collegiality, regional Bureau of Reclamation executives Michael Jackson and Pablo Arroyave flew in from their headquarters in Fresno for a hastily organized meeting with the five water agencies that comprise the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board, otherwise known as COMB . Assembled around a U-shaped configuration of tables at the Cachuma recreational center was an impressive gathering of movers and shakers — largely but not exclusively male — from the Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria, Montecito, and Santa Ynez water districts.

Jackson and Arroyave sought to reassure those assembled that they take the problems dogging Cachuma very seriously, heated letters written to the contrary by COMB’s most recent executive director Randy Ward not withstanding. In times of crises, they noted, it’s easy to lose one’s head. But in a water crisis such as the one California is now facing, they stressed, now is the time all parties absolutely must keep their cool. Most of their time, Jackson and Arroyave pointed out, has been consumed dealing with a water shortage of staggering dimensions in the Central Valley. There, they said, the Bureau of Reclamation runs water facilities that normally hold 11 million acre-feet of water to be distributed among growers and urban users. Now, they have less than one-fifth of that amount to make do with. By contrast, Santa Barbara’s problems — quantified in terms of tens of thousands of acre-feet — might seem paltry. But, insisted Jackson and Arroyave, they rank high on the Bureau of Rec’s priority list of concerns.

Fish Need Water, Too

Giving rise to the tension has been the chronic failure of water pumps operated by the bureau that are designed to send a well-calibrated trickle of water down a 3,000-foot stretch of Hilton Creek — located just south of the reservoir — to keep it wet enough to sustain a remnant population of steelhead trout. Although the Santa Ynez River was once ground zero to one of the most vibrant steelhead populations in the state, the species — officially designated an endangered species by the federal government — has all but disappeared since the construction of Lake Cachuma — formed by the Bradbury Dam — in the early 1950s.The Hilton Creek steelhead effort was mandated in 2000 by the National Marine Fisheries Services, whose acronym — NMFS — is pronounced “nymphs.” To comply with this requirement, COMB and its member agencies have spent millions of dollars on biological studies and environmental planning, releasing about 4,000 acre-feet of water down the creek every year.

But the pumps that actually send water from Lake Cachuma into Hilton Creek are owned and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. In wet years, those pumps are used hardly or not at all. But in dry years, they’re crucial. But in the past year and a half, those pumps have been plagued with chronic technical problems. Ten times in a 13-month period, the pumps malfunctioned without warning or notice. In five of those, nearly 900 steelhead perished in perhaps the largest known violation of the federal Endangered Species Act to occur within Santa Barbara County. Each dead fish constitutes what’s known as a taking. NMFS reportedly has been investigating this, but to date, there’s no indication of what determination this agency has made and what, if anything, it will do about it.

Information Ain’t Free

COMB director Randy Ward first tried to raise hell about the pumps quietly. But when the problems persisted, he got louder about it. And when the problems persisted still, he too got louder still. The Bureau of Reclamation had — and still has — a host of explanations having to do with technical difficulties, misdiagnoses, topographical complexities, and rigid procurement rules and regulations. Even so, they insisted, they were working on it. But problems kept occurring. Pumps failed. Backup pumps failed. And even more fish died. Part of the problem was lack of repair and maintenance for the pumps. Part of the problem was that PG&E, which supplies energy to the pumps, experienced a number of technical difficulties of its own — known as “blips” — causing power outages and shutdowns.

What little patience Ward had left disintegrated this spring. Two things happened. On Memorial Day weekend, yet another outage occurred, and hundreds of small fingerlings died in the mud despite desperate heroic efforts by COMB employees to save the fish. At that time, most water agencies had declared a Stage II drought alert. Not only had there been no rain, but they’d just been put on notice they’d be getting not a single drop of state water from the Department of Water Resources, a historical first. In response, local water agencies were desperately scrambling to pump leftover state water deliveries from the previous year that had been stored in the San Luis Reservoir into Lake Cachuma. But this April, with no advance notice, the Bureau of Reclamation ordered Randy Ward and COMB to stop accepting state water from the San Luis reservoir into Lake Cachuma. Because the pumps feeding Hilton Creek had malfunctioned yet again, the bureau decreed, it would need to commandeer the intake valve at the base of the dam and use it to release water into Hilton Creek.

On April 14, Ward went bureaucratically ballistic. He sent a lengthy memo to Michael Jackson blistering the Bureau of Reclamation for its repeated failure to address a problem that he charged was utterly obvious and predictable. The note, while technically polite, was decidedly not gentle.

The first to take exception to Ward’s memo was Chris Dahlstrom, the executive director of the Santa Ynez River Conservation District, Improvement District No. 1 (ID1), a small but influential water agency that belongs to COMB. Dahlstrom and ID1 have longstanding differences with COMB on a host of issues, but he blew his top over Ward’s letter. He shot Ward a letter demanding that he retract the letter to Michael Jackson. He objected that Ward was wrong on the facts and that he was totally out of line even to raise concerns about Hilton Creek and the steelhead with the bureau. Such communication, he stressed, was the exclusive domain of individual agency executives, such as himself, and certainly far afield from Ward’s job description.

Dahlstrom took Ward to task for putting such concerns in writing in a public document. They would now be subject of Freedom of Information requests, he opined, open to anyone who wanted to see them. He was especially concerned they would aid and comfort environmental activists, who have long contended that the Hilton Creek project — however well-intentioned — is totally insufficient to adequately redress the damage inflicted on steelhead by Bradbury Dam. Their agenda is to somehow move the steelhead over the dam and up the river, where there are much better and more bountiful spawning grounds. The irony is that Dahlstrom put such objections in writing, making it a public document that members of the public are entitled to see.

Not long afterward, Michael Jackson sent Ward a letter of his own, noting that he’d seen Dahlstrom’s letter and “didn’t disagree with any of it.” He also iterated his suggestion to Ward that COMB could probably get the pumps fixed faster and cheaper than the Bureau of Reclamation could and that COMB could seek reimbursement later. Ward responded that there was no legal basis for COMB to get compensated and urged Jackson to arrange a meeting with COMB officials at his earliest possible convenience.

Last week, Jackson announced he was coming to Santa Barbara to hold such a meeting, but he arrived with such short notice that several COMB board members and water officials who otherwise would have attended could not clear their schedules. As a meet-and-greet, the encounter went well enough, lasting slightly in excess of two hours. Jackson was personable, quick to remember names, and even quicker to laugh. His basic message was collegiality and civility. No one disagreed, but some, like board president Lauren Hanson of the Goleta Water District, responded, “True colleagues are able to be frank with one another.” In her introductory remarks, Hanson — sitting next to Randy Ward — said COMB had asked repeatedly about the problems surrounding Hilton Creek but often with little satisfaction. “You may consider our outreach badgering; we consider it forceful caring,” she said. Those unresolved technical issues, she added, threaten to compromise “years of work and millions of dollars of local investment in projects for endangered steelhead.”

The Bi-Op

The good news — at least in the short-term — is that the bureau has installed two pumps that are currently working. In addition, it is working on an emergency backup system. That contract should be signed August 22 and the work done within 60 days. All of that combined could cost as much as $2 million. The bureau will factor that additional expense into the bills it sends COMB. If COMB wants, it can then seek reimbursement for these additional charges, but such approval would ultimately have to take place at the congressional level with the adoption of the federal budget. None of that went down particularly well with COMB members, but that wasn’t the main bone of contention.

Much more on the minds of everyone in attendance was what’s known as the Biological Opinion, or in bureau-speak, the “Bi-Op.” Actually, there were two bi-ops hovering heavily over the discussion, the existing one and the new one that’s due to be released sometime next year. According to the existing biological opinion, the COMB members have to release enough water to sustain the steelhead of Hilton Creek until the amount of water stored in the dam drops to 30,000 acre-feet level. Everyone agrees that will happen in the next two months. The problem, explained Jackson, is that the biological opinion provides absolutely no guidance about what happens after the dam dips below that level. “Everything is on the table,” he said. Given the stakes involved, that was of great concern to the COMB board members in the room. Even more concerning is that they do not have a seat at the proverbial table to which Jackson alluded. Whatever happens will be decided by Jackson and his colleagues at the bureau in coordination with NMFS, the federal agency charged with ensuring the steelhead are protected from extinction. The delegation representing the Montecito Water District was especially outspoken in their displeasure, objecting that they will bear the burden of such decisions and will have no say in the outcome.

Generating far more dread and anxiety among COMB members is the potential impact of the any new biological opinion that NMFS adopts. Environmentalists have been lobbying hard and effectively — making their case based on biological arguments coupled with clearly established public trust — on behalf of the steelhead for more expansive restoration efforts that will invariably require the release of more water for the fish. Throughout last Thursday’s meeting, ID1’s Chris Dahlstrom made frequent remarks expressing apprehension and disdain for such an outcome, insisting people and crops should come first. While Dahlstrom may be the least politically correct in expressing such views, he’s hardly the only COMB member to hold them.

With this new biological opinion looming in abeyance, many COMB members are extremely alarmed that NMFS might harshly judge their restoration efforts — centered around Hilton Creek — because of pump failures that occurred not on their watch but on the Bureau of Reclamation’s. If NMFS finds COMB’s restoration efforts lacking because of the steelhead accidentally killed on Hilton Creek because the Bureau of Reclamation’s pump failures, NMFS could impose even more fish-friendly requirements in the next biological opinion than they already are likely to do. Santa Barbara City Councilmember Dale Francisco sits on the COMB board but did not attend Thursday’s meeting due to prior engagements; he summed up the concerns: “The success of Hilton Creek is absolutely vital to our credibility as good faith operators in terms of steelhead restoration. Over the years, we’ve put enormous resources into this creek and this effort — millions of dollars’ worth. To have these steelhead losses now that were so entirely preventable is of great concern. At times you have to say, ‘What is the bureau doing?’”


Independent Discussion Guidelines

I suspect that the problem with the Hilton Creek project is that it is a wildlife conservation effort being implemented by engineers. Now, I like engineers and I think that as a class of people they are very smart. However, the biologists are best suited to steward a wildlife conservation project. It is telling that the solution to the pump problem is to fix the pumps and install backup pumps (a classic engineering solution). A biologist may inquire, should the survival of the Santa Ynez River watershed steelhead trout really rely on something as subject to failure as mechanical pumps? State Fish and Game biologists are protecting steelhead all over California and have been doing so for years (without resort to mechanical devices). Maybe the engineers should swallow a little chauvinistic pride and asked the biologists for some help with this problem.

Eckermann (anonymous profile)
August 9, 2014 at 4:13 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Huge kudos to Randy Ward for kicking A** while others just moaned quietly: this really if "forceful caring". While important, the meeting sounds pretty much like a 'meet and greet', on short notice, and then SB folks can just "deal with it". I agree with those "environmental activists, who have long contended that the Hilton Creek project — however well-intentioned — is totally insufficient to adequately redress the damage inflicted on steelhead by Bradbury Dam."
So the real issue is population growth and GREEDY humans over the coastal range in SB who will not reduce their water consumption drastically enough. Why hasn't the City of SB MANDATED water cutbacks like other districts?? Up with the fish, let the humans stop watering their gardens and washing their cars with beautiful water.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
August 9, 2014 at 7:03 p.m. (Suggest removal)

You're right Dr. Dan. If we want to prevent the extinction of the Santa Ynez River watershed steelhead, we need to find a way for them to access the upper regions of the Santa Ynez watershed, where the water is. The dams (both of them) are barriers but not ones that we cannot find ways around for the fish. The key is for the South Coast to live with less water which means less development and fewer lawns and more efficient use of treated waste water. Also all the folks in the Santa Ynez River watershed who are downstream of Cachuma would benefit from a system of continuous flow of some amount of water. The solution is at hand if we just accept limits to growth on the South Coast.

Eckermann (anonymous profile)
August 9, 2014 at 7:32 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I've hiked extensively along the so-called Upper Sta Ynez River...above Gibraltar Dam (pretty silted up), near and above the tiny Jameson Res. (Montecito Water Dist. needs this, but it's also near empty)'s all dry up there right to Murrietta Divide which is where this river begins. I'm confused about statements like "we need to find a way for them to access the upper regions of the Santa Ynez watershed" -- there isn't much water up could steelhead survive there...??

DrDan (anonymous profile)
August 9, 2014 at 7:46 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Comb should begin legal proceedings against the Bureau of Reclamation, sue them for being asleep at the switch. Meanwhile, when it comes time to vote for the State's water bond, remember how idiotic, inefficient and incapable the Bureau of Reclamation has been in this case and extrapolate to a case where the state is handling all the water. What a bunch of bozos.

shortrees (anonymous profile)
August 9, 2014 at 8:48 p.m. (Suggest removal)

What??? There's no state water? Didn't we pay millions for that project. Who are the SOB's that sold us that boondoggle? How is your self esteem now Mr. Hatch?

Eggs_Ackley (anonymous profile)
August 10, 2014 at 8:52 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Echoing DrDan's last comment. . . I've spent a considerable amount of time over the course of several decades hiking in and exploring the Upper SYR watershed since I was a boy. I'm not a biologist, and I have only a rough understanding of this matter, but it has never at anytime struck me as an area of flourishing native trout.

Above Jameson, it seems there would be in dry years very few places, if any at all, that trout could hold over through the long summers. I only know of one possible place. It seems that the trout would not be able to survive some years outside of or above the reservoirs. And so I'm also puzzled by the notion that access to the "upper regions of the Santa Ynez watershed" is some sort of viable fix or solution. The upper regions are at least as dry as the lower regions.

It seems the best summertime pools of water above Bradbury, by volume, would be in the Red Rock recreation area, which is obviously heavily used by recreationists.

And so it seems the savior of the trout is not so much the "upper regions of the Santa Ynez watershed," which go bone dry in summer, but the very reservoirs whose construction spelled the collapse of the fishery in the first place. Which, at least so far as Cachuma is concerned with its stocking of farmed fish, makes me wonder about the genetic implications of such a plan.

WordsOfReason (anonymous profile)
August 10, 2014 at 9:47 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Steelhead are anadromous similar to salmon in that they spend a considerable amount of their life in the ocean and return back to where they were hatched in (traditionally) the upper reaches of river systems like the SYR. I believe the Southern Stealhead trout spawn in the spring when there would be the best chance for natural flows in those upper reaches.

SB2SB (anonymous profile)
August 11, 2014 at 7:32 a.m. (Suggest removal)

OK, SB2SB, but the uppermost StaYRiver, say in area of billiards flat, is just amazingly tiny... do you think they could've [would've] spawned in nearby Alder Creek which feeds into Jameson via an aqueduct? Surely, with Jameson and Gibraltar dams in the way, there is no way in heck that we could imagine spawning in the upper upper Sta Ynez today??

DrDan (anonymous profile)
August 11, 2014 at 8:11 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Backing way out on this issue, when are we going to become aware that population is the driver of this water consumption issue. Even if this current drought were a aberrant blip, the biggest issues we face are the result of continued population growth in a finite resourced world.

What about elimination tax deductions for more than two (one?) children? What about actively adopting policies that discourage and penalize large families - regardless of your personal resources, or not, they draw upon a finite natural resource pool.

Sure these local issues are relevant and reflect the insanity of water policy and district development over the years. When times are dry, the craziness of this all becomes even more apparent…..

TheEvolOne (anonymous profile)
August 11, 2014 at noon (Suggest removal)

DrDan, I think you have a good idea of what an ephemeral stream vs.sheet flow (flows only during rain event) is in that area; I too have spent some time wandering up those small tribs. I would say a good rule is if the creek can support decent riparian growth (willows are a really good indicator) then it could potentially support a spawning steelhead due to a relatively constant flow in the wet months. Right now of course the current dams block their migration so they don't go there, but potentially adding a fish ladder for example could re-open some habitat and put less pressure on Hilton Creek to be their only hotel if you will.

SB2SB (anonymous profile)
August 11, 2014 at 4:09 p.m. (Suggest removal)

So you want to save the steelhead do ya? Well first start by getting our desal plant up and running, and then work on renovating it. Then install a wind farm and solar array to make the energy to power the plant green energy. Water rates will go up but they will be supplied by renewable energy and hopefully high prices will help cut consumers consumption of water. Also, keep the tiered system of charging customers more money for excess water consumption and use the extra money brought in to pay for the desal, solar, and wind farm. Then remove the up stream dams. Then retool water rights legislation so that agriculture can't continue to pump as much water as they see fit out of our aquifers and by changing water rights legislation we will see a rise in the water table and will increase the likelihood that our creeks might at least have some water in them year round. After that continue with habitat restoration and removing old debris dams.

...or we could spend a few million dollars in perpetuity to keep these steelhead hanging on to life by a thread while never having ecologically viable populations in our streams...maybe we should s**t or get off the pot.

Wookiewacker (anonymous profile)
August 11, 2014 at 4:12 p.m. (Suggest removal)

OK, I do the "photo caption" comments.

Photo caption: "On the left, a man who needs to go to the bathroom, in the center...ok, Welsh took the words out of my mouth. On the right: "Oh no!"

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
August 15, 2014 at 10:33 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Remove the upstream dams, yes! they're also pretty silted up...

DrDan (anonymous profile)
August 15, 2014 at 11:41 p.m. (Suggest removal)

At least the good news is that we're pumping hundreds of millions of gallons of reservoir water down a creek that naturally would have no water in it now anyway.

Makes perfect sense.

realitycheck88 (anonymous profile)
August 17, 2014 at 1:46 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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