A handful of California Fish and Wildlife workers, armed with rods and reels, launched the first of several backcountry rescue efforts targeting the genetically invaluable trout now struggling to stay alive in the Juncal Reservoir — a k a Jameson Lake — 10 miles from Montecito. “There’s not enough water, and what there is is too hot,” declared Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Andrew Hughan.
Although the trout landlocked in the dam are not technically steelhead — steelhead have to be able to go from creek to ocean to creek again — they are genetically identical. In fact, the fish held captive at Jameson, isolated from the reproductive dilutions of stocked trout, are among the most genetically robust.
With water levels plunging from 80 feet to 20, the temperature, turbidity, and oxygen levels of Juncal are reaching critically dangerous levels. Although the Montecito Water District has been testing the water on a weekly basis, there’s no established threshold demarking when such rescue efforts need to be initiated. Privately, some district personnel say the rescue campaign should have been launched this May, pointing out a number of dead trout found floating with some regularity on top of the lake.
This week’s effort is a trial run, with the target being 50 pounds of fish, to be hauled away in a refrigerated, oxygenated truck to a fishery in Fillmore. The second rescue, slated to take place a couple of weeks hence, will target a few hundred pounds of trout and involve as many as 50 people.
Steelhead were declared a federally endangered species in 1994, and in Southern California, there are about 500 adults from the Santa Maria River to the Mexican border. Efforts to keep the steelhead alive throughout the current drought have proved problematic. Various water agencies have been spending up to $2 million a year to remove obstacles keeping steelhead from migrating up South Coast streams, but there’s little expectation those efforts will pass muster with federal officials now working on a revised “Biological Opinion” of efforts to keep the steelhead alive.
The expectation among water agency leaders is that the new Biological Opinion — a powerful regulatory instrument expected to be released within the next several months — will find area efforts to be woefully inadequate. Giving greater urgency to efforts to save the steelhead at Juncal is widespread anticipation the feds will issue what’s known as a “jeopardy opinion,” meaning local steelhead remain in jeopardy because of existing practices.