$7.5 million to replace useless fish ladder in Santa Paula Creek
- Eight years after about $1 million was spent on a Santa Paula Creek fish ladder for steelhead trout, the federal government is looking to spend $7.5 million to build a new one because the old was deemed useless when the fish most need it. “They screwed up,”$7.5 million to replace useless fish ladder in Santa Paula Creek
By Zeke Barlow
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Eight years after about $1 million was spent on a Santa Paula Creek fish ladder for steelhead trout, the federal government is looking to spend $7.5 million to build a new one because the old was deemed useless when the fish most need it.
That the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is having to complete an expensive do-over of the project highlights how difficult and costly it will be to restore populations of the endangered fish, especially in rivers that have been altered with dams or channels. Ladders are supposed to help the fish get around such man-made structures, but this one has proved more of hindrance than help.
“It just doesn’t work as anticipated,” Darren Brumback, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said as he looked at the battered structure that fills up with sand during big floods.
The Army Corps is working feverishly to get the new fish ladder approved by the various regulatory agencies and out to bid by Sept. 30, or the $7.5 million in funding, which is part of the federal stimulus bill, could vanish.
The fish ladder sits about a mile upstream from the confluence of the Santa Clara River. It was part of a massive $14.8 million flood control project to protect the city of Santa Paula that turned the sides of the creek into walls of concrete.
Though the ladder works during low flows, when there is a large amount of water, and in turn lots of sediment, the pools the fish use to jump over the 17 steps along the way fill up with rocks and sand. That makes the ladder a hindrance rather than a help. The water flows over the pools and is sometimes diverted away from the ladder to the cement slab where fish can’t get up. The problem is that it’s when the water is high that the steelhead swim upstream from the ocean to lay eggs.
“They screwed up,” said Frank Brommenschenkel, a consultant for an agency which maintains a different fish ladder upstream. “I think they overlooked a very important aspect of Santa Paula Creek and that is that there are hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of rock and sand that come down there on an average annual basis.”
A 2007 study found the erosion rates in the Santa Clara River watershed are among the highest in the world, resulting in an extraordinarily large amount of sediment flowing downstream. And that clogs fish ladders.
“I think there might be some things that could have worked better, but at certain flow regimes it does work,” said Darrell Buxton, the project manager for the Army Corps in charge of building the new ladder.
Jay Field, a spokesman for the Army Corps, said the agency built the ladder to the standards that seemed acceptable then.
“We built things to the best available science at the time,” he said. “Certainly we learn things every day and perhaps there is a better way to do it today.”
Brumback said one of the problems with the ladder is that it was modeled after looking at fish ladders for salmon in the Pacific Northwest. At the time it was built, it was believed the ladders that were successful in Washington would work in Southern California, he said. Turns out, they are very different beasts.
“We learned more in the last 10 years than the knowledge that this ladder is based upon,” he said.
Buxton said there are a few proposals they are looking at to either repair or completely replace the structure. Whatever happens, it’s likely that sand and sediment will have to be cleaned out of the ladder every few years.
Brumback said a large part of the problem is that the ladder sits in the middle of a flood control project, which changes the dynamic of the river. Those changes inevitably lead to maintenance such as cleaning out the ladder, but it still should work during high flows.
“We really want to get this right this time,” he said.
Ron Bottorff, chairman of Friends of the Santa Clara River, said anytime there is that much alteration to a river, making it friendly to steelhead is very hard.
“This is a very difficult problem and not an easy one to solve,” he said.