Are the steelhead back in the Santa Ynez River yet?

Normally the once proud and gracefully flowing Santa Ynez River is reduced to a dry sand bed with its banks occupied by numerous homeless camps, but occasionally during heavy rains it flows almost as it did when steelhead were abundant, long before Bradley Dam was built and Lake Cachuma was formed. For the last two years, following significant rain events, the river has once again been seeing a small creek-sized stream all year long.

Imagine living in Santa Barbara County in the 1800s. The Chumash who once called the entire coast of our county their home had been first colonized by the Spanish during the mission era and later placed on a small 30-plus-acre reservation by the U.S. government, which today is a vibrant and successful casino and hotel. 

The Santa Barbara mission was the center of extensive grain fields and fruit orchards and the home range for great herds of livestock. By mid century, raising cattle was the most important local industry. After droughts in the 1860s, long before “global warming” was a thing, the cattle industry declined and several of the large ranches were subdivided and sold to eastern immigrants. This started a gradual transition from ranching to the more intensive farming of smaller acreages.

Soon the hard riding and dashing vaqueros were replaced by even harder working farmers who guided their horse-powered plows through the fields. Dry farming of wheat, barley, corn, hay, beans, peas, potatoes, garden vegetables, and fruit expanded rapidly. At the turn of the century, irrigation began to develop, first for growing sugar beets and alfalfa, then for vegetables and other crops.

Then, as now, Santa Barbara was the county seat, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the political leaders of Santa Barbara were faced with a problem that still exists today—how to get enough water to allow the South Coast community to grow and prosper. Then it was for agriculture, today for industry and tourism.

In the early 1950s, the Cachuma Project was born as the South Coast water woes solution. It was created by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation using an earth-filled dam (aka Bradbury Dam) located 25 miles northwest of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez River drainage, which including its tributaries is about 900 square miles. Two other dams were previously located upstream and remain there today. 

The Cachuma Project probably could not be built today since it destroyed thousands of acres of critical habitat, ruined a fishery, and obliterated thousands of years of Chumash culture. 

Long-standing water rights rules normally preclude the transfer of water from one aquifer to another—yet as we know, these rules look good on paper, but in practice they are ignored, and water is transported thousands of miles all over the western United States.

Once the dam was complete, the gates were closed and the river dried up. Today it only flows from bank to bank in El Niño type storms. Floods, some very serious, still occurred in the Lompoc area because the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had determined that the dam was not constructed “for flood control” but only to impound drinking water for the South Coast.

More than two decades ago, following a serious flood in the valley, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam, agreed to change its practices and manage the dam to preclude significant releases during storm events and raised the dam a few feet. 

The new practice allows for smaller releases prior to significant rain events and the impoundment of a larger quantity of water during the storm. This new method has been tested during several storms, and it has proven to be a very good way to reduce the flooding threat in the lower valley.

And all those steelhead that once filled the river? Well, they are almost completely gone. A few remain in deep pools near the base of the dam in Hilton Creek, and all fishing in the river has been forbidden for several years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because the fish may return someday. 

But these fish aren’t in their natural habitat since they can’t migrate via the Santa Ynez River to the Pacific Ocean and return to birth newer generations of fish as nature intended. Today they migrate from fish farms via truck to stock Hilton Creek.

Isn’t it odd that the successors of those early Santa Barbara politicians who nearly eliminated the steelhead from the Santa Ynez River are now preaching to us that we must save the environment?

I am waiting for these same environmentalists to demand that Bradley Dam be removed, but that would never happen since their own personal lives would be impacted by its removal.

I guess the need to protect and conserve the environment only applies to someone else’s environment. Meanwhile, after decades of efforts to save the steelhead, they still aren’t in the lower reaches of the river and most likely never will be.

Ron Fink writes to the Sun from Lompoc. Send a letter for publication to [email protected].

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