SOMETHING FISHY THIS WAY COMES: I don’t know firsthand what sound a steelhead trout makes when you throw it under the bus, but I’m told its guts explode with an audible pop. Then there’s a sharp hissing as remnant gases escape under extreme duress. My sentiments about the beleaguered fish are identical to those of boxing great Muhammad Ali’s when discussing the United States’ enemy-of-choice during the Vietnam War. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali famously said. Likewise with me and the steelhead. Ever since Bradbury Dam — aka Lake Cachuma — went up in the 1950s, the steelhead that once engorged the Santa Ynez River have been hanging on by their cuticles. By 1997, their toehold on existence had grown so tenuous the federal government declared them an endangered species. When times were good and water plentiful, this was an imposition we could tolerate. But with the onslaught of our current drought, the continued existence of these amazing fish now constitutes a grievous affront to our personal convenience. Increasingly, the cry is to consign those few survivors to the wood chipper of history, transforming their remains into fish-rich soil emollients so crucial to cultivating plants never meant to be grown in a semi-arid environment. Like I say, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them steelhead.”
With snowpack in the Sierras just 18 percent of normal — last year it was 31 percent — and Lake Cachuma poised to stop any new deliveries as of this October, we’ve entered unprecedented territory. In times like this, if you aren’t pushing, you’re the one getting shoved. Hence the growing interest in dispossessing the steelhead from the marginal sustenance we allot them via carefully calibrated water releases. These releases are allegedly overseen by two vast federal bureaucracies whose agents rarely talk to one another, and even less to the heads of the six water agencies whose customers depend on Lake Cachuma for sustenance. Out of this dysfunctional geometry, confusion, fear, and anxiety are inevitable. But as card-carrying members of the Homo sapiens sapiens, we presumably have the cranial capacity to maintain perspective. It’s time to use it.
Let’s start with the dysfunction. When what’s known as “project water” in Lake Cachuma dips below 30,000 acre-feet, there’s a planning mechanism in place to reduce the flow set aside for steelhead to mimic the natural feast-and-famine fluctuations that define our meteorological and biological realities. When we hit 30,000 acre-feet, the Bureau of Reclamation — which built and owns the dam — is supposed to talk with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) — the agency charged with keeping endangered species alive — about cutting releases. Makes total sense. We allegedly hit the 30,000 mark this November. The alarm was first sounded in July, then again in December. But only last week — after much heavy breathing — did the Bureau of Reclamation finally send NMFS a “let’s talk” note. I am told the Bureau and NMFS do not agree on the definition of “project water.” That’s a big problem. Perhaps even bigger, in 2013 the Bureau proved incapable of keeping in working order the water pump needed to maintain a token fish-friendly habitat in Hilton Creek. As a result, 393 steelhead juveniles died stranded in mud puddles; 636 were rescued. That track record may not inspire NMFS to take the Bureau’s request too seriously. Compounding problems, NMFS talks only with the Bureau, not with local water agencies. We do not have a seat at the table; we’re not even allowed in the room.
The upshot is that more water has been released to keep the steelhead alive than should have been since last November. The $64 million question remains by how much. The answers sprawl all over the map. On the high end, one water agency head told me it was 3,000 acre-feet; another told me 2,000. In one month, I was informed, enough water was released for the steelhead to keep 900 homes awash for one year. But then, I was also told — by equally qualified and informed experts — the real number could be as low as 400 acre-feet a year and maybe as high as 850. That I am getting such widely divergent numbers from trained professionals paid big bucks to know such things is cause for serious alarm and even more serious doubt. Are they confused, or am I getting spun? Probably, it’s both.
In this context, I have no idea how indignant I’m entitled to feel about fish that, in hindsight, should never have made their homes where our water supply just happened to be. But there’s no shortage of anti-fish fervor. To those guzzling that brand of Kool-Aid, I’d hazard a few observations. First, the amount of water released for steelhead is roughly one half the amount that evaporates off the lake every day. Second, 11 years ago, four-foot-high flashboards were installed around the perimeter of Lake Cachuma to capture water that hitherto ran to the sea. This water — 9,200 acre-feet — was to be set aside for the fish so as to not impinge on our time in the shower or watering our lawns. Third, the fish has been in Santa Barbara for millions of years, humans only 12,000, and so-called modern civilization barely 150. If the steelhead figured out how to survive here, we should take lessons, not serve them poached with béarnaise sauce. Lastly, until every lawn has gone from green to brown, and we’ve all installed gray-water systems, then I would strongly suggest everyone shut the hell up about the steelhead. Given that fully half our water is used keeping outdoor plants alive, I’m pretty sure there’s enough water to go around for us and the fish. When the county supervisors were asked to consider an ordinance requiring that new water wells be metered — a token gesture — they ran for the hills as if they’d been asked to track how often county residents had sex the past year, in what position, and for what duration.
Like I say, I ain’t got no quarrel with the steelhead. If only they could say the same about us.