Council, Steelhead Swim Upstream

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

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

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.


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