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

Environmental defenders of the federally endangered steelhead trout are hailing as a major victory the Supreme Court’s decision this week not to hear an appeal filed by Twitchell Reservoir operators who argued they are not legally authorized to release water for steelhead recovery. Operators of Twitchell Dam — located on the Cuyama River and which serves residents of the Santa Maria Valley — had argued that the congressional language authorizing the construction of the dam 70 years ago did not specify that the water could be used to comply with the Endangered Species Act. It only could be used, they argued, for human consumption.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals saw it otherwise and ruled in favor of the steelhead, as represented by Los Padres ForestWatch, the Environmental Defense Center, and the San Luis Coastkeeper. Maggie Hall, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center, said the issues surrounding Twitchell Reservoir were highly specific and that there were no broader legal controversies for the higher court to settle. Before the construction of the dam, Hall said the Santa Maria River sported the second largest steelhead run in the county, about 10,000 fish a year. The construction of the dam effectively blocked steelhead passage to spawning grounds. Hall said the release of about 4 percent of Twitchell’s annual storage capacity would be required to restore downstream habitats to make a meaningful difference for steelhead recovery.


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