Lawsuit filed over endangerment of Steelhead in the Santa Maria River
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The Environmental Defense Center, located in downtown Santa Barbara, has responded to a case of the endangerment of Steelhead Trout in the Santa Maria River. Just this past week, they responded by filing a lawsuit against the operators of the Twitchell Dam, which is located in southern San Luis Obispo County and northern Santa Barbara County. According to Maggie Hall, Staff Attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, “there was a big movement in the 1950s to install these dams and not a lot of thought was given to how they would conserve wildlife in doing so.” Now, Steelhead are considered one of the most endangered fish species in the U.S.
The problem is that the limited water flows on the Cuyama River before reaching the Santa Maria River, “which provides an important migratory corridor for steelhead trout,” as stated by Hall. There is simply not enough water reaching the Santa Maria River, which is prohibiting flow and consequently limiting the up- and downstream movement of these steelhead. The species has seen remarkable rates of endangerment since the construction of the dam, and there has never been any improvement, despite efforts by the California Coastkeeper Alliance in 2007.
Hall reassures that “there have been experts that have put together a very detailed scientific report, projecting what type of flow the fish actually need to make their passage upstream or downstream.” The Environmental Defense Center staff took the results of this study to prepare a lawsuit, “requesting that the operators change the way they manage the dam to allow for the releases that would benefit the fish.”
As the problem of Steelhead endangerment has become more severe, the efforts to solve it have become all the more necessary. Out of this necessity arises the appeal by lawsuit which is in action now. Hall says it was their “goal to get a lawsuit filed and to try to get the new flow regime in place as soon as possible, ideally before it starts to rain.” The push for completion before the rainy season is due to that fact the fish thrive on a wet season. The results of the new flow releases, either positive or negative, can then be noted during this upcoming rainy period.
For the new case proposed, Hall says that “the impact on water supply is quite minimal,” only estimated to affect 4 percent of reservoir water from the Twitchell Dam. Therefore, the minor change to the flow would ideally prove to have maximum impact and only these minor drawbacks, which Hall comments on behalf of the opinion of Environmental Defense Center as a whole, saying that “the benefits far outweigh any and all consequences.” Hall further says that “the fish do come back. The species has a remarkable way of restoring itself, as long as it has the habitat it needs.”
Though this is a quite specific case, it is by no means unique. Environmental experts have noticed a common thread of these types of cases, where great harm is being done to fish species. Therefore, Hall mentions there is a recent shift of focus now “on how to improve the conditions for fish and other wildlife surrounding dams to try and make up for the many years of harm they have caused.”