In the past year, 175 steelhead trout — a federally endangered species — died in Hilton Creek, a tributary of the Santa Ynez River, when pumps operated by the federal Bureau of Reclamation that feed water into the creek as part of a steelhead restoration effort failed to function properly and left the fish stranded in the mud. Another 65 steelhead were rescued, according to Randy Ward of the Cachuma Operations and Maintenance Board at this week’s board meeting.
On March 1, the pumps failed at 3 a.m., but Bureau employees were reportedly prohibited from stepping foot on the barge where the pumps are located until daylight. Ward said his employees scrambled to fill the breach, noting that the early March rains saved hundred of fish from otherwise certain death.
Ward said there were seven pump malfunctions in the past year. In that time, Ward said the Bureau was required to have a back-up pump, but failed to do so. Likewise, he said the Bureau has failed to make necessary repairs to the existing pump.
Hilton Creek has long been one of the showcase channels in which steelhead restoration efforts have taken place. Over the years, water agency managers have grumbled about having to release water for the fish, particularly when it’s been in short supply for South Coast consumers. “At this point, we’re squeezing the rag to get a few drops out,” Ward said.
Efforts to contact the Bureau of Reclamation proved unsuccessful by deadline. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act as it applies to steelhead, has been investigating the matter.