A Southern California steelhead trout photographed in Mission Creek in 2004. | Credit: Santa Barbara Independent File Photo

The federally endangered steelhead trout of Southern California and its champions — Los Padres Forest Watch and San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper — won a major legal victory at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month. According to the ruling, the operators of Twitchell Reservoir — which supplies much of Santa Maria’s drinking water — must comply with the Endangered Species Act. To comply, they will almost certainly have to release some small allotments downstream to create an environment in which the steelhead can reproduce. 

Dam Operators and the Bureau of Reclamation — which built Twitchell in 1958 — have argued that federal rules and regulations prohibit them from using any of its impounded water for anything but human consumption. The dam was built before the passage of the Endangered Species Act and the listing of the steelhead as a endangered species. 

“This is huge,” exclaimed Linda Krop, senior counsel for the Santa Barbara–based Environmental Defense Center, which represented Forest Watch. Krop noted that she and her client had lost when the case was argued before four lower courts. “The fifth time, I guess, is the charm,” she joked. 

The ruling — which comes at a time when the South Coast and the entire state finds itself in the grips of a prolonged drought — does not say how much water needs to be released for the benefit of the steelhead or when, only that it can and should be done. The exact details of how much and when are yet to be hammered out.

There are studies, some 10 years old, indicating that small water releases done during wetter years can make a difference for steelhead recovery. The Ninth Circuit ruled there was nothing mutually exclusive in the twin federal aims of providing drinking water for humans and preserving a remnant population of the steelhead. 

The court ruled that the creation of the dam — slightly bigger than Lake Cachuma, which supplies much of the South Coast’s water needs — contributed to the steelhead’s endangered status. Twitchell Reservoir — which impounds water from the Cachuma River — will now find itself bound by some mandatory-release rules that have governed the operation of Lake Cachuma.

CORRECTION: This story was updated to clarify that the ruling did not explicitly order dam operators to release water but rather to comply with the Endangered Species Act, which will likely result in additional releases of water for the endangered steelhead trout.

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