Fish ladder water shortage feared
by Jesse Phelps
Is something fishy with the Robles Diversion? According to
the Casitas Municipal Water District, a number of mountains remain
to be scaled before we see the completion of the proposed fish
passage in the Ventura River channel near Meiners Oaks.
The district has called a public meeting Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. at
the Sunset Elementary School cafeteria at 400 Sunset Drive in
Oak View, to discuss the most pressing issues with concerned
members of the public.
The latest in a long history of setbacks is a debate over the
amount of water needed for release to allow passage of the endangered
southern steelhead. The agency claims that if it consistently
releases the amount of water said to be required by the National
Marine Fisheries Service for the passage of fish, a result could
be water shortages for its customers.
Board director Jim Coultas summed up the central issue by saying
when his customers "get in the shower and they turn it on,
they want water. They want it clean and healthful. And when they
open the bill every two months, they want it to be real cheap.
That's our function. That's what we're trying to do."
NMFS specs require the release of 3,200 acre-feet annually, while
CMWD maintains that anything over 2000 acre-feet would exceed
its safe yield.
On Monday, district general manager John Johnson, accompanied
by Coultas and PR consultant Alex Hulanicki, led a tour for local
press to explain this and other complex issues surrounding the
proposed fish ladder project.
After a general information session, the caravan arrived at the
Robles Diversion for a look at the existing structure and the
plans for the proposed passage. The finished ladder would be
engineered specifically for steelhead, including a stainless
steel screen to keep smaller fish upstream with a fish-safe screen-cleaner
that operates automatically.
"Every safety device we can provide for the fish is in there,"
California Trout, a non-profit environmental group involved in
the project, estimates the total population of southern steelhead
at around 100 fish. But even should the ladder be completed in
time to save the dwindling population, another barrier remains
before the fish can reach the backwaters up Matilija Canyon.
The 198-foot Matilija Dam, a somewhat dilapidated structure that
critics says serve no current function, would need to be torn
down. Massive amounts of silt that have built up over the years
would need to be piped out.
Coultas estimates the total buildup of silt at 7 million cubic
yards and says that without taking out the dam, a maximum of
a "couple hundred fish" could occupy the river. He
said "It's relatively simple to remove the dam" but
to pipe out the silt would be a time-consuming process.
Two options exists for its removal. In one scenario, two massive
pipelines would take water from the ocean and use it to push
the silt out down the channel. While that would take time and
money, the other option - to naturally let the silt drain over
time - could take decades. Furthermore, he pointed out, when
the first big flood hits, "you might be swimming in Meiners
Johnson reiterated that he felt the various agencies involved,
the community, "the environmentalists" and the district
"all agree" about the need to build the fish passage.
Yet, he reiterated, the district is also concerned with making
sure its customers have water in the years to come.
Lake Casitas has a spill level of 254,000 acre feet, or about
82 and a half billion gallons. Despite the recent rains, the
lake remains "about 24 feet" below capacity, according
The district derives 30 percent of its revenue from its Lake
Casitas recreation area, and even now, its primary boat ramp
is unusable because of the diminished water levels.
Should the district decide to release the water for the ladder,
worries about the water levels could be compounded by additional
monetary concerns. The district stands to lose about $4 million
in the near future as time-sensitive grants from the Department
of Fish and Game and the Coastal Conservancy could be revoked
during the first few months of 2003 if construction has not begun.
If NMFS issues an order to build the fish passage facility, the
need for an Environmental Impact Report could be averted, say
CMWD officials, and construction could begin, saving grant funding.
But "during extended dry years, the release of water for
fish could significantly impact the water supply and water costs
for the District's customers, recreation users, and agriculture."As
Hulanicki put it, "We're dammed if we do, damned if we don't."Hulanicki's
presence has already been a cause for some debate in the community.
With the information currently on the table, one might draw two
very different conclusions about a specially hired PR consultant
in the CMWD office.The cynic might surmise that CMWD is playing
both sides of the river, as it were, hiring Hulanicki to promote
the party line of we-all-want-the-fish-passage, while simultaneously
raising issues that clog the works. The optimist might believe
CMWD truly is the little agency caught in a big bind. The truth
is that six years down the road, no fish ladder exists in the
Robles Diversion and significant district resources have been
spent. CMWD stands to lose money if the fish passage is not constructed
and the fish stand to lose everything. The district now finds
itself, once again, at an impasse.The meeting on Dec. 18 promises
to shed more light on all these issues. The district is considering
several options for moving forward and all concerned citizens
are encouraged to attend and voice their opinions.
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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