Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 6
Dry flow: The steelhead recovery effort starts below Bradbury Dam, but the water isn't always on
BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
A low-hanging mist is strung out between the summits directly above the gray-blue expanse of Lake Cachuma. From the Bradbury Dam overlook, you can only see the side of the lake that butts up against a 2,976-foot-long, 206-foot-high, rock-covered slope of a wall with a road running along its top and a gigantic cement structure of gates on one end. Remnants of last night’s rain cling to the vegetation on both sides of the fenced vista point, and a tall, thin man looks out at a portion of the lake. What he sees this March 26 morning prompts him to knit his eyebrows together.
Tim Robinson, whose hands are shoved into the pockets of his faded jeans, crouches down, pulls one hand out of its shelter, and points through a gap between oak tree branches, toward a spot in the lake a couple hundred feet from the dam.
There are two barges, one much smaller than the other. As manager of the Cachuma Operations and Management Board Fisheries Division, Robinson’s got a problem with what’s not working out there. He said the smaller barge is responsible for dangling a water intake pipe at a certain level in the lake, and the bigger barge holds two pumps. The contraptions link up to pull water from a cooler portion of the lake, send it through a little black pipe that runs over the top of the dam, and deposit it into Hilton Creek on the other side of the dam wall.
The set of pipes and pumps is essentially a lifeline for the fish that live in the creek. Without the constant flow of water out of Lake Cachuma, the Central California coastal steelhead trying to make their way back into a sustainable existence have one less hold in an area where their housing options are already considerably less than they once were.
Steelhead are a close relative to rainbow trout, but are a little slimmer and more streamlined in shape. They have a bright, silvery sheen when they’re adults. The biggest difference between the two fish is in lifestyle. When steelhead mature, they leave their natal freshwater homes and journey out to the ocean. They make the opposite journey to spawn. But steelhead don’t die after one baby-making trip, as most salmon do. Instead, they often make several journeys to procreate in their lifetimes.
The now-endangered species was once abundant in the 800 miles of creeks, tributaries, pools, rivers, and an estuary that make up the Santa Ynez River watershed. But three dams—Bradbury, Jameson, and Gibraltar—shore up a little more than the top two-thirds of the watershed, making it impossible for migrating steelhead to seek out the protected areas where their ancestors spawned. Havens like Hilton Creek can give what remains of the steelhead population a safe, cool spot in which lay their eggs before heading back to the ocean.
“In this time of drought, the natural flow in the creeks are all very low, and it’s the only spot where we’ve been able to keep the flow going,” Robinson says. “That could be our saving population for an endangered species, so it’s a pretty important population. It’s critical.”
The pump operation that keeps the creek full is supposed to run 24 hours a day, but sometimes the water completely stops flowing. Around 7:15 a.m. this morning, Robinson received a phone call: a flicker of power stilled the solitary working pump on the barge.
The other one’s been down since last October.
It’s now noon on March 26, and the working pump is running again. The back of Robinson’s fleece vest is spattered with little brown pieces of riparian habitat. A mix of black and gray hair sticks out from under his cap. He shakes his head and is at a little bit of a loss for words. For the better part of the morning, he and two of his crewmembers trudged along the edges of Hilton Creek looking for struggling or dead fish.
“This is the time of year when the creek is most vulnerable to low creek flows,” Robinson says.
He points to a 1-centimeter-long stick on the ground, and says, by way of comparison, “They’re hard to see. They’re small.”
Obviously, not all of them are that small, but this is the middle of spawning and hatching season, so some of the fish are just babies. Moving water keeps temperatures cool and also prevents the pools with redds—fish nests—from going dry.
Whenever the pump stops, Hilton Creek’s water level immediately begins to drop.
The fisheries department search crew found one dead fish that morning, and one they had to rescue. The fish that died was measured, photographed, bagged, and labeled.
Robinson’s next job is to file a report with the National Marine Fisheries Service, because the fish that died wasn’t just some random fish, it was a steelhead. The species spends a portion of its lifespan in the Pacific Ocean, so it falls under the jurisdiction of the service, which is a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Steelhead were listed as endangered in 1997, and the Cachuma Operations and Maintenance Board has, along with several federal agencies, spent millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours working to rehabilitate steelhead habitats in the Santa Ynez River watershed, such as Hilton Creek.
The wind picks up as Robinson starts talking about a series of pump failures that started in March 2013. He starts to pace and chooses his words with care. His guys, from the Cachuma Operations Fisheries Division, are responsible for managing what’s below Bradbury Dam, Hilton Creek, and several other tributaries of the Santa Ynez River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for the water that flows out of Lake Cachuma.
During average or high rainfall years, when the lake level is high enough to feed Hilton Creek via gravity alone, nobody has to worry about pumps. Drought years like this one and the last are when the bureau has to use those pumps to get water into the creek because the lake level is so low. Before March 2013, the pumps hadn’t really been tested; Hilton Creek has received an allocation of water out of Cachuma since the late ’90s, and the pump project was finished in 2004 or 2005.
When a pump switches off, Robinson can’t just swim out and fix it. The only thing his crew can do is try to lessen the impact of dropping water levels on steelhead.
The March 26 incident was one of ten pump failures that have stopped the water flow into Hilton Creek over the last year. At this point, 176 steelhead have died because of pump issues, and Cachuma Operations employees have been able to rescue 91 fish and relocate them to deeper habitat. That’s a lot of mortalities in an area currently supporting between 700 to 1,000 fish, and the number of adult steelhead returning from the ocean to spawn is only in the double digits.
Here are the issues: One of the pumps is broken; the other one gets switched off when there’s a PG&E blackout, brown out, or even a little flicker, because there’s no backup power generator. That pump has to be turned back on manually—which means bureau employees have to get in a boat, go out to the pump barge, and flip the switch. The power flicker on March 26 happened at the “ideal” time, according to Robinson.
“That’s the best case scenario we’ve had yet. Normally it happens at some weirdo hour when no one’s around,” he says.
Earlier that day, in Cachuma Operations and Maintenance Board’s Santa Barbara offices, General Manager Randall Ward was leaning back in his chair with his hands on his head, explaining his frustrations with the pump issue that has yet to be fixed. His sentiments about the timing of that morning’s incident were similar to Robinson’s: Pump failures usually happen in the middle of the night.
“I got a text message at midnight on March 1. We got called out to Hilton Creek,” Ward said. “The next one was a text message at 3 in the morning.”
On his desk were stacks of paper, each a different project. The Lower Santa Ynez River Fish Management Project—made up of steelhead rehabilitation projects in Hilton, Salsipuedes, Quiota, and several other creeks below Bradbury Dam—comprised the stack that was closest to his office door. Ward’s thoughts on the March 1 pump failure?
“But for the fact that it was raining, there would have been hundreds of mortalities,” he said. “It was sheer luck that it was raining.”
The huge storm that rolled through after months and months of almost no rain happened to let loose over Santa Barbara County that night.
When Robinson gets a phone call in the middle of the night about a pump problem, he texts Ward, rounds up a couple of his employees, and they all head out to Hilton Creek. Then, they start walking the banks. They don’t stop their fish search until hours after the pump gets switched back on.
Margaret Gidding, a spokesperson from the Bureau of Reclamation—remember, the body responsible for the pumps—said that the Southern-Central California regional office has a policy that employees aren’t allowed to go out to work in the dark. So if electricity to the pump in Lake Cachuma cuts out in the middle of the night, the pump won’t get turned back on until the sun comes up, no matter what.
Ward said a system like the one at Cachuma is a lifeline for those fish; it should never stop working.
“This should be seamless. If there’s a power outage, there should be a sequential series of events that happen to keep the water flowing,” he said. “If it stops, in a matter of minutes, there are mortalities. … Control measures don’t exist, and the existing flow system is not dependable.”
He said there needs to be a generator that automatically switches on during power outages. Gidding said the bureau is working on fixing the power issues.
“We want to get this fixed,” she said. “I’m not sure what’s going on with the power grid down there, but we’ve got to get some emergency measures in place.”
As for an exact timeframe, the bureau is still working on the pump that broke down in October. Gidding said they had contractors go out and look at the broken pump, only to realize that the damage was more extensive than originally thought. So now the bureau has to get another set of estimates together and get contractors out to the spot again. Apparently, these kinds of things take time.
Another thing that takes time is the series of investigations into what caused steelhead to die in Hilton Creek. Although the cause—pumps that don’t work—seems pretty cut and dry, John Thibodeau, communications specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Office of Law, said the investigations are still ongoing; it could be months before anything solidifies.
“We just want to do our due diligence and bring all the information we can to our general counsel,” Thibodeau said. “Final penalties remain with the judge. It can range from nothing, depending on the judge, to up to $25,000 [in fines] per fish and up to one year in jail.”
Thibodeau added that everyone who’s found to have violated the Endangered Species Act is treated the same.
“There’s not going to be any preferential treatment,” he said.
Bigger than pumps
The Santa Ynez River and its miles of various tributaries once played host to the biggest annual run of steelhead south of San Francisco. Counts aren’t exact, and numbers varied widely based on how much rain there was, but it was in the tens of thousands. There were enough fish fighting the river’s currents that the area developed as a healthy sport-fishing destination.
Grainy, black-and-white pictures from the early 1900s show locals and visitors alike with fish that hang down from above their hips to below their knees. Those days left as quickly as the dams were built in the upper reaches of the watershed. But the one that topped them all was Bradbury Dam, which was completed in 1953. It blocked off what was left of the primo spawning habitat, according to Brian Trautwein, the environmental analyst/watershed program coordinator for the Environmental Defense Center.
His voice was clipped as he responded to questions about the pump situation that’s causing problems for Hilton Creek; he told the Sun that the Cachuma Operations people were wasting their time and grant money with this Hilton Creek business.
“All the good habitat is lost,” Trautwein said. “We feel like the most important thing that can be done is providing [steelhead] access to their historic spawning grounds.”
As he got into the reasons why he felt so strongly about the issue, he started to relax a little. Trautwein has lobbied to get passage around, over, or through Bradbury Dam for the last 17 years. He believes that providing a way for steelhead to get into the upper reaches of their historic habitat will be a boon to the species, allowing them ample and appropriate space for recovery. Without that, Trautwein said, the fish are barely hanging on to existence.
Steelhead want to be in places like Red Rock, he explained. That’s about a 30-minute drive from the Bradbury Dam overlook. A series of pools sits in the Santa Ynez Recreation Area of Los Padres National Forest, 10 miles down Paradise Road. Right now, those pools are connected only by a trickle.
Drought has lowered or eliminated the normal springtime rush of water along or over Paradise Road. On a recent Wednesday, the Red Rock Day-Use Area was oddly vacant. Only a couple of cars were parked in the lot at the top of the trailhead. Little gnats buzzed in circles, and it felt like summer heat was already hanging in the air. The pool closest to the parking lot was murky. Brown, slimy muck was encrusted below the surface, and a school of adult trout were swimming lazily in the center, out where it’s deeper. Trout babies darted about under a lip of grassy shoreline.
There are several of these pools, some deeper than others, some surrounded by vegetation, some with hillsides and rocky cliffs shooting out of them. All of them have what Trautwein said steelhead need for habitat.
He said the loss of 176 fish in Hilton Creek is significant, and he doesn’t understand why it was allowed to happen more than once.
“What’s going on in Hilton Creek is a microcosm of the much larger problem that’s going on in the watershed,” he said.
The insistent whine of a mechanical water pump in Lake Cachuma contrasts with the natural buzz of flying insects and frogs in Los Padres National Forest. The human actions at the root of those contrasts are most likely the same causes that put steelhead in the endangered mess they’re in—but that’s the cost of development, said Mark Capelli, recovery coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service South Central Southern California Area.
Over the last century, the Santa Ynez landscape has changed extensively—and not just with urban developments, but also in terms of rural character. Irrigation channels, farmed land, roads, and cattle all make an impact on the lower portions of the watershed. Even the more-protected upper reaches are affected by development to some extent. Broken beer bottles and articles of clothing are scattered along the shoreline areas of Rock Creek—evidence that some people don’t take “pack it in, pack it out” as seriously as others do.
“Reintegrating fish back into that built environment is going to be difficult,” Capelli said. “The Santa Ynez watershed has been profoundly affected by the construction of three dams; the natural flow of the watershed has been extensively modified.
“The physical action of flowing water is what creates a watershed and makes it what it is,” he continued. “Those flows have not only been reduced by the dam … but it’s changed the natural flow that shapes a river and makes it what it is.”
The natural flow of the Santa Ynez River will probably never be the same as it once was, but Capelli’s convinced that there’s a way to give both human development and the natural environment what they respectively need. He agrees with Trautwein’s assessment of historic steelhead habitat. The good spawning and rearing habitat is above Bradbury, and gaining access to those breeding grounds is essential for steelhead recovery. But Capelli added that habitat restoration efforts in lower tributaries, such as Hilton Creek, are important because steelhead depend on every aspect of a watershed.
Restoring shoreline vegetation and building culverts for creeks to cross under roadways are relatively small projects compared to undertaking fish passage over a 206-foot-high dam. He said the smaller-scale projects are necessary to help maintain the population of steelhead that does migrate up the watershed; the fish need someplace to go until the larger-scale projects can be completed.
Cachuma Operations and Maintenance completes about one project a year with the help of grants and federal agencies. Out on Refugio Road, as it winds into the hills outside of Santa Ynez, brown guardrails demarcate the culvert projects completed over the years. Under those guardrails are tall, wide, rounded cement bridges over the quiet, slow dribble of Quiota Creek, which is shaded by oaks and sycamore trees and edged by dead leaves and rocks. The culverts allow sediment and water to flow freely, and enable fish passage both upstream and downstream.
“The efforts down below [the dam], while important—because, as I said, every part of the river is important—is only part of the picture,” Capelli said.
The broader picture is of a more monumental effort. Gaining access over Bradbury Dam and over the rest of the dammed up watersheds of Southern California is going to take time and persistence.
“It would have been easier to do if the fish had been factored into the equation when the dams were built,” Capelli said. “It’s a very ambitious undertaking.”
Currently, all the agencies involved in restoration efforts on the Lower Santa Ynez are basing their work off of a biological opinion issued in 2000—essentially a legal mandate from the National Marine Fisheries Service—that outlines what needs to happen for steelhead in the Santa Ynez River and its tributaries. That opinion mandates that the Bureau of Reclamation provide a constant flow of water out of Lake Cachuma for Hilton Creek. Using data gathered through efforts in that creek and other tributaries, Capelli’s colleagues are working on reshaping the biological opinion and will issue an updated version in the next couple of years.
Folks such as the Environmental Defense Center’s Trautwein are hoping that the new biological opinion calls for fish passage over the dam, because the current opinion doesn’t. Capelli said he wasn’t sure exactly what would be included in the updated opinion.
He did say that a recovery plan was issued for the watershed in 2012, which is a big step in the right direction—but recovery will take time. Realistically, Capelli said, it will probably take 80 years for steelhead to make strides across all of Southern California’s watersheds.
“It’s a very long-term recovery effort; it’s not something that can be done in a couple years,” he explained. “We’re going into areas with extensive development within infrastructure that was built without regard to its effects.”
Accomplishing something within the parameters of government agencies doesn’t happen quickly, and this push to give steelhead a place in Southern California has been building steam. Capelli said he’s seen the general population take an interest in steelhead rehabilitation efforts in the last five to 10 years, which is huge. But it’s going to be a complicated process: Dams are huge, too. Each one is a little different, and so are the river systems they block.
Until those dams are tackled, it’s the little projects—such as Hilton Creek—that are sustaining what’s left of the steelhead population that climbs rivers in search of tributaries just perfect for eggs. If the water runs out, so will the fish.
Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanhamat firstname.lastname@example.org.