Santa Clara river fish ladder ordered
Freeman Diversion hinders steelhead
Water district must build new facility, officials decide
By Zeke Barlow
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Following years of debate, officials have ruled the Freeman Diversion
on the Santa Clara River hampers the ability of steelhead trout to
move up and down the river and a new structure needs to be built to
protect the federally endangered species.
A fish ladder does exist on the 30-foot diversion. But it does not
allow steelhead to move up the river, which is deemed one of the most
important watersheds in Southern California for the fish that were
once plentiful in local rivers, according to a biological opinion
released Friday by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
While environmentalists applauded the decision, United Water
Conservation District, which operates the diversion, was disappointed
with the outcome that could cost the district tens of millions of
dollars in the coming years.
United Water had fought to counter an earlier draft opinion by the
NMFS. The district found the final report "extremely disappointing,"
and called the 2011 timetable to build a multimillion dollar facility
"difficult if not unfeasible," said General Manager Dana Wisehart.
While the opinion does not outline specifics of what needs to be
built, officials at California Trout said the report is a step in the
right direction. California Trout filed a suit against United Water
more than five years ago claiming a violation of the Endangered
"This document is a good outcome that provides an outline for the best
minds to work for a good solution for the fish," said Nica Knite,
Southern California project manager for the environmental nonprofit
The 122-page document calls for a panel of experts to convene and
figure out the best mechanism for fish to get around the Saticoy
facility, which diverts water to a series of ponds and canals and
recharges aquifers in the Oxnard Plain and Pleasant Valley.
A plan of short-term solutions is expected to be drawn up as soon as
this winter. Once a new facility is agreed upon, the plan calls for it
to be built and operational by 2011.
The existing facility doesn't work, and fish can't find their way to
the ladder during the rainy season's high flows, the report says. From
1994 to 2002, the most adult steelhead that have been seen in the
diversion in one season is two.
Though United Water proposed fixing the existing fish ladder, NMFS
said a completely new system is needed, though the old structure could
be integrated into a newer, bigger project.
"It creates a pinch point in the system, and it will prevent steelhead
from getting to where they need to spawn," Craig Wingert, a
supervisory fish biologist with NMFS, said of the existing diversion.
The price tag for a new fish ladder varies from $28 million to $60
million, United Water officials said. Wisehart said the district would
have no choice but to pass a rate increase onto its customers.
And she said the 2011 timetable is untenable.
"In my experience, it's downright impossible," she said.
The 2011 date was chosen because that is when United Water will have
paid back the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which lent the district the
funds to build the diversion.
"We do need to get moving, and that is why this deadline is so short,
because we have used up so much time," said Ron Bottorff, chairman of
the Friends of the Santa Clara River.
United Water could still fight the decision by filing a lawsuit, but
such actions have not been discussed, Wisehart said.
On the Ventura River, the Casitas Municipal Water District was
essentially forced to build a $9 million fish ladder around the Robles
Diversion in 2005 after similar threats of lawsuits. The district is
still involved in a lawsuit to get some reimbursement for the water it
is forced to provide for the steelhead.
The Santa Clara River, along with the Ventura and Santa Ynez rivers,
is seen as one of the last remaining watersheds in Southern California
where steelhead may have a chance to escape extinction.
Now the fish can't get past the Freeman Diversion, which is about 12
miles from the ocean, and up into Sespe Creek, a tributary of the
Santa Clara River that has some of the best steelhead habitat in
Friday's opinion is seen by many environmentalists as a way to hasten
the fish's restoration and allow the fish to get to the rich habitat
in watersheds of Los Padres National Forest.
"It's the environmental overhead for the water delivery system in
Southern California where we messed up the river and creek fish
passages," David Pritchett, a member of the Southern California
Steelhead Coalition, said of the decision. "It's a sign that the
region is not sustainable or self-sufficient if the environmental
quality of the river has to be degraded at the same time."