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Steelhead protections could bring new water restrictions

A state determination that Southern California steelhead trout merit additional protections could mean tighter water restrictions, according to agricultural groups and water districts.

California Farm Bureau environmental policy analyst Justin Fredrickson said strengthening protections for the Southern California steelhead under the California Endangered Species Act "is going to ratchet things up regulatorily for affected water users."

Though actions to protect steelhead will vary for different affected watersheds, Fredrickson said, "the state endangered listing will be used to maximize flows in the rivers and minimize or restrict diversions and groundwater pumping."

The California Fish and Game Commission April 18 unanimously agreed with a staff recommendation that listing the Southern California steelhead as endangered under the state ESA is warranted.

The commission is expected to adopt the recommendation from a California Department of Fish and Wildlife staff report at a future meeting.

The action is in response to a 2021 petition by the advocacy group California Trout to list the species, which has a range from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties.

Increased protections for the species would affect water users and districts in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. The Southern California steelhead has been listed as federally endangered since 1997.

The status review of the species by CDFW staff cited dwindling numbers of steelhead due to urbanization, agriculture and water development. In addition, the department said climate change will lead to "more frequent periods of adverse conditions."

Groups representing agriculture and water interests in Ventura County argued that there is not enough scientific evidence to warrant the endangered listing.

"We're in a position where we are already doing environmental flows for the steelhead in an area where there isn't a lot of convincing evidence that there were historic populations here," said Maureen McGuire, CEO of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.

"A lot of people feel that these environmental flows exceed what is required to reflect the historical conditions of the area," McGuire added.

Attorneys representing the United Water Conservation District, which serves farmers, water agencies and municipalities in the Santa Clara River area of Ventura County, said in a letter to the commission that some key evidence presented to state fish and wildlife officials was not considered or mentioned in the agency's report.

United Water Conservation District General Manager Mauricio Guardado said in a statement provided to Ag Alert®: "Once this action is finalized, United Water Conservation District plans to challenge it, as we continue to fight for the residents, business owners and farmers we serve every day."

Citing the district's belief in balancing environmental and human water needs, Guardado added, "That's why we continue to invest in the science needed to protect habitats and species, rather than blindly following the whims of a regulatory agency that continues to buck hard science for special interest pressures."

In its comments to the commission, the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents more than 460 public water agencies that collectively deliver about 90% of the water in the state, questioned the science used by the department.

"ACWA and its members are invested in healthy watersheds and habitats that support robust populations of native fish and wildlife," said Stephen Pang, ACWA state relations advocate. "However, ACWA has significant concerns regarding both the scientific basis for a listing determination and the potential impacts on public water agencies' ability to reliably provide water if Southern California steelhead are listed as endangered pursuant to the California Endangered Species Act."

Ventura County agricultural interests said in a joint statement that an endangered listing would threaten sustainability of agriculture. The statement noted that such action "will have immediate, detrimental impacts on water diversion and groundwater recharge."

Water from the Ventura and Santa Clara rivers supports agriculture and livestock directly and through planned and focused recharge of groundwater aquifers. Recharge also protects groundwater from saltwater intrusion, the groups added.

In addition, groups representing agriculture and water users said increased flows for the steelhead required by the listing would impact ongoing efforts by local agencies to balance groundwater as required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA.

"There is a lot of discussion in Ventura County about our not being able to recharge the over drafted basin in the way that we should be able to because there's this idea that we need to do environmental flows," McGuire said.

Kevin Merrill, a wine grape grower and chair of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau water committee, said local farmers are waiting to see how an endangered listing for Southern California steelhead will affect water users that depend on the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria rivers.

According to California Trout, the upgraded listing of the Southern California steelhead will promote removal of obsolete dams, improve habitat, secure instream flows and restore watersheds, plus enhance federal protection for the species.

The nonprofit group advocates for removal of Matilija Dam in the Ventura River watershed and Rindge Dam along Malibu Creek, and expedited removal of barriers on additional creeks so fish can gain passage.

The state's decision to increase protections for the Southern California steelhead comes several months after Gov. Gavin Newsom released the California Salmon Strategy aimed at protecting and restoring the species "amidst hotter and drier weather exacerbated by climate change."

The multiyear approach calls for removing obsolete dams, increasing flows, restoring habitat, improving passages for migration, modernizing hatcheries and other actions.

At the federal level, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service finalized three rules intended to strengthen ESA implementation by restoring protections for species and habitat, strengthening processes for listing species, designating critical habitat, consulting with other federal agencies and ensuring a science-based approach.

To learn more about federal ESA changes that took effect May 6, visit http://www.fws.gov/project/endangered-species-act-regulation-revisions.

Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].

Permission to use this article was granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.

 

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