Water uses draw fire
by Jesse Phelps
The Casitas Municipal Water District hosted a public forum
Wednesday night at Sunset Elementary in Oak View to discuss the
proposed and planned, but as yet unbuilt, fish ladder at the
Robles Diversion Dam in Meiners Oaks.
The cafeteria was packed with about 175 people, some in the day's
work clothes, some in business suits. The diverse audience included
ranchers and farmers, typical water users, Ojai City Council
members Carol Smith and David Bury, environmental activists and
Michael Jackson, an executive with the Bureau of Reclamation.
The panel was made up of National Marine Fisheries Services Assistant
Regional Administrator Jim Leckey, CMWD board members and biologists
and a representative from CalTrout. The affair was presided over
by Bob Rauch, a public affairs consultant hired by the CMWD.
The first half hour was dedicated to meeting and greeting - an
opportunity for the people who came to participate to familiarize
themselves with the people, issues and data involved.
CMWD and NMFS had posterboards set up with graphs and charts
and what each organization saw as relevant information. The crowd
mingled and exchanged ideas for half an hour before Bob Rauch
introduced CMWD board president Jim Coultas and general manager
John Johnson, who introduced the dilemma as seen through the
eyes of the district.
Johnson referred to the district's twin priorities of providing
water to its customers and recovery of the steelhead and requested
that the audience provide opinions. He delineated three options
for moving forward.
He said NMFS could mandate that the district comply with its
specifications regarding water release and implied that in that
scenario, CMWD would have to follow the order. A second option,
Johnson said, was to release the water without the order. The
third option, do nothing, he rejected as "not an option"
despite its presence as a PowerPoint slide on the overhead.
Johnson was followed by Leo Lynch, the district's biological
consultant, who explained issues surrounding the lake's hydrology,
accompanied by slides depicting lake levels over the last 50
years and the amount of water diverted via Robles. Analyzing
the former, he noted that "during the wet periods, really
no significant differences" would exist in the amount of
water availability because of the fish ladder.
"The other area of concern," said Lynch, "is the
potential effect on the fishery. Sport fishing has a regional
reputation at Casitas." He pointed out the need for a process
to protect reservoir storage during dry periods.
Leckey was up next. He admitted that the particular processes
for drought conditions have yet to be lined out, but also assured
the throng that, in the case of a prolonged dry period, NMFS
would be willing to suspend or modify its requirements for water
release by the district.
"Safeguards for CMWD," he said, "would include
monitoring, research, and adaptive management" techniques
in the event of a drought. "We have no intention of drying
up the lake," he stated
After the presentations, Rauch asked the crowd to write questions
or comments on paper provided at the rows of benches. The people
complied in abundance, bringing thick stacks of paper to the
front during a ten-minute break. Rauch then read the questions,
being careful to alternate topics so as not to allow a single
point of view to dominate the discussion.
The most vocal groups were the ranchers, lake recreation enthusiasts
and the environmental activists. Questions and comments addressed
several topics of concern, chief among them issues of the lake
drying up, perceived misconduct on the part of the various agencies,
and whether the steelhead can be strictly classified as a species
or a sub-population.
Leckey clarified that whether or not the steelhead are a separate
species (they are not), his agency has a duty to protect the
endangered population, which he estimated has lost 99 percent
of its density.
One citizen pointed out that in Santa Paula, a similar ladder
on the Santa Clara River has not returned the species to health.
In response, Leckey said that to come back, the steelhead will
need decades and three open channels, and warned people "not
to expect too much, too soon."
All sides purport to want the fish ladder. CMWD and NMFS agree,
in principal, that to build it is feasible and to do so in a
timely manner is critical. "During high-flow years,"
Johnson said, "there's no problem that we can see with your
water supply or recreation."
Yet, the sticking point remains the specific amount of water
for release. "The problem," said Lecky, "Is when
you get into one of there twenty-year long droughts. There are
impacts from those drought scenarios on water supplies. In that
scenario, they're going to get pretty close to drying up the
In answer to one citizen's concern regarding the safeguard measures
NMFS would be willing to institute during a drought, Leckey said,
"We are tying the flow requirements directly to the hydrology.
The issue is, we're down to the last few remaining fish and we
need to protect them."
"This is an opportunity for CMWD to do the right thing and
support the NMFS plan," said councilman Bury. "Remember,
the fish were here first. Casitas needs to be a good steward
of our environment while still meeting the needs of its customers."
California Steelhead Coalition Program Coordinator David Pritchett
took it a step further. "I think the district is not really
being honest about their gain or loss of revenue from the lake
recreation area. The water they would have to give up is water
they really want for other pet projects," he said.
The Ventura River has a "braided" channel with a number
of riffles, areas where the ground is higher and the water level
lower. The goal of NMFS is to release enough water during peak
fish migration conditions to cover these riffles with the minimum
six inches Leckey said the steelhead need to migrate. The fish
move about a mile a day. The distance from the river mouth to
the diversion is about 10 miles, so 10 days of water release
would be required to allow "the slower swimmers" to
make it past the dam.
The meeting, originally scheduled for two hours, ran well into
the third before the crowd had thinned, the Christmas cookies
were gone, and the last notes were read. Though nothing was resolved,
the public did have a chance to voice its diverse views, though
some were unhappy with the Rauch-mediated discussion.
"We are disappointed that they set up the format of the
meeting so people could not speak directly," Pritchett said.
"Much more would have come out and we would have been able
to anticipate any obfuscation to better effect."
The issue promises to heat up further as long as the passage
remains in the planning stage and the fish remain cut-off from
Matilija Canyon. In the meantime, district officials continue
to debate with NMFS over much water is needed. Leckey said it's
doubtful his agency will put the mandate through to release the
water for fear that the "local agency" might litigate
and further push back the fish ladder construction.
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
Back to the news