By Erin Lennon
Bureau of Reclamation may face lawsuit after hundreds of fish perish near Cachuma
Hundreds of endangered Southern California Steelhead Trout are dead after a power outage kept the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s lone operating water pump from funneling much-needed flows into Hilton Creek beneath the Cachuma Reservoir.
The Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center has threatened to sue, alleging the bureau violated the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits harming, hunting or in any way capturing or killing listed species. The power outage on or around May 25 withheld mandated water flows for a period, subsequently disrupting the species’ movement. More than 200 steelhead were found dead in the waterway, according to the EDC.
The nonprofit environmental law firm issued the Bureau of Reclamation a 60-Day Notice of Violations and Intent to Sue on May 30.
The bureau is allowed one incidental adult steelhead death and up to four juvenile steelhead deaths a year under its biological opinion with the National Marine Fisheries Service, according to EDC Staff Attorney Nicole Di Camillo. This determination was finalized in 2000 and was meant to help restore and protect the endangered species.
“They are magnitudes beyond that in these fish deaths,” Di Camillo said. “The minute they killed more fish than allowed, they should have contacted the National Marine Fisheries.” While Di Camillo said talks have been ongoing, she is not sure of the depth of these discussions.
The power outage in late May was the 11th since March 2013. Those previous outages had stopped water flows, with 176 steelhead found dead. Cachuma Operations and Maintenance Board General Manager Randy Ward detailed these incidents in a letter to the bureau.
“You and your agency have been repeatedly advised of these water supply disruptions and impacts to fisheries, which have been caused by USBR’s apparent lack of planning, its malfunctioning equipment and an inadequate action response plan,” Ward wrote in April.
Because the bureau’s main pump at Hilton Creek is out of commission, according to bureau spokesperson Louis Moore, the bureau has been using the alternate pump to supply flows for the steelhead. Moore was unsure for how long the main pump has been down.
“They are out fixing that (alternate) pump, but they are also going to replace the main pump,” Moore said. “That’s the heavy duty system that will make the whole pump system work better.”
In the meantime, the bureau has discussed trucking water up to Hilton Creek.
“That’s just temporary,” Moore said. “We’re just trying to make sure that in the interim, we can provide water.”
The bureau is mandated to maintain adequate water flows in Hilton Creek to help steelhead migrate between the ocean and healthy upstream waters as well as spawn and rear their young. The EDC argued that these power outages have left the creek dry for periods of time, stranding the fish.
The Southern California Steelhead joined the endangered species list in 1997 after their numbers dropped by 99 percent. The population fell from more than 32,000 to fewer than 500 after dams and other structures blocked access to upstream spawning areas and interrupted water flows in Southern California rivers and streams.