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Environmental Group Achieves Settlement With Federal Government to Protect Endangered Steelhead

hilton-creekSanta Barbara, Calif– A federal court has approved settlement of an Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) case brought against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (“Reclamation”) by watershed and fish advocacy organization California Trout, represented by the Environmental Defense Center (“EDC”).  The settlement requires among other tasks, that Reclamation complete long-delayed repairs to the watering system that releases water into Hilton Creek, a tributary of the Santa Ynez River below Bradbury Dam, for the benefit of endangered Southern California steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) (“steelhead”).

The long-beleaguered watering system and faulty pumps failed to work properly on numerous occasions beginning in early 2013, resulting in Hilton Creek, designated critical habitat under the ESA, running dry. This failure led to the deaths of at least 393 steelhead and necessitated the stressful capture and rescue of at least another 634 stranded fish.  After multiple delays in even starting to fix the pumps and watering system, and after Reclamation had still not specifically consulted with the National Marine Fisheries Service as required under the ESA concerning these incidents, California Trout brought suit in Federal Court in the Central District of California in October, 2014.  The suit, alleging violations of the ESA and its regulations, aimed to try to compel faster action to protect one of the most endangered fish in the United States.

Southern California steelhead are a form of rainbow trout that spawn in coastal streams in Southern California before migrating to the Pacific Ocean to mature. The fish has evolved over the millennia to tolerate the region’s warmer freshwater – a genetic trait, which could prove vital to the survival of steelhead populations throughout the world as ocean temperatures rise due to climate change. Because they are particularly sensitive to water quality and temperature, steelhead are a critical indicator of the overall health of a watershed. 

The Santa Ynez River and its tributaries, including Hilton Creek, saw steelhead populations precipitously decline following the construction of Bradbury Dam in 1953. The Santa Ynez River steelhead run was estimated at between 13,000–25,000 adult fish in the last century but has fallen to only a handful of adult fish making the migration under current conditions.

“Southern California steelhead are already critically endangered – once a steelhead stronghold, the Santa Ynez River population of steelhead plummeted after Bradbury Dam was constructed – so these ongoing incidents of fish being killed en masse was simply unacceptable. Swift action needed to be taken in order to protect the species,” said Candice Meneghin, Conservation Manager for the Southern California Region of California Trout.

“This settlement is a major victory in protecting the imperiled steelhead in Santa Barbara County – we are very pleased to see Reclamation take responsibility for complying with its obligations under the Endangered Species Act, and look forward to continuing to work with California Trout to protect these endangered fish and encourage recovery efforts on its behalf,” said Nicole Di Camillo, Staff Attorney for the EDC.

Reclamation is required, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act and a Biological Opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2000, to release water into Hilton Creek to ensure adequate flows for steelhead to migrate, spawn and mature and to ensure that the fish does not fall further into jeopardy of extinction. Water released into Hilton Creek flows directly into the main stem of the Santa Ynez River, providing water for downstream agricultural and other users.

Pursuant to the settlement, Reclamation must complete repairs to the emergency backup system it has begun installing by January 31, 2016. This system, unlike the former pumping system, is fully automated such that if the main pumps go down, backup diesel pumps should start automatically. The previous lack of automation was a large part of the long delays that led to fish deaths. 

“The lack of a quick response to these continual pump outages put steelhead at risk over and over again, which is unacceptable under the Endangered Species Act,” said Di Camillo.  She added, “after multiple pump outages and multiple delays in even contracting for this repair work – which only began in earnest a year and half after the first pump outage leading to 56 steelhead deaths – we are pleased to have a firm deadline to complete this important work to protect this endangered and important fish.”

In addition, the settlement requires Reclamation to explore the possibility of a implementing a permanent, gravity-fed system of watering Hilton Creek by November 30, 2015, and requiring further deadlines in 2016 to determine how to pursue such a system if it is deemed possible.  “We are pleased that Reclamation is being required to look at this as an option, because we see a pumping system as always subject to problems, even with a backup system in place. Mechanical systems inevitably have problems, but passive gravity flow, as was always used previously to water Hilton Creek, is more reliable,” said Meneghin.

In working towards settlement, Reclamation also agreed to formally request reinitiation of consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service specific to these incidents of steelhead deaths, and to allow California Trout to review and comment on a draft of the forthcoming Biological Opinion that will result from this consultation process. This process will allow California Trout and EDC to help ensure long-term protections for steelhead through proper management of Bradbury Dam.

The fish deaths occurring at Hilton Creek underscore the need to adopt holistic solutions to species recovery so that manual water releases are not the primary focus of recovery efforts.  California Trout and EDC are also working to secure measures that will restore steelhead on the larger Santa Ynez River system, by solving complex resource issues while balancing the needs of wild fish and people.

The settlement can be viewed here.

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Concerned about deteriorating fishing conditions throughout the state, a passionate group of anglers founded California Trout in 1971. CalTrout is a 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to protect and restore wild trout, steelhead, salmon and their waters throughout California. CalTrout has worked to protect and restore the Santa Ynez River steelhead population since 1990. Learn more about CalTrout at http://caltrout.org/

The Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties. Since 1977, EDC has empowered community based organizations to advance environmental protection. Program areas include protecting coast and ocean resources, open spaces and wildlife, and human and environmental health. Learn more about EDC at www.EnvironmentalDefenseCenter.org 

 

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