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 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?’”