OK expected soon for fish ladder plan
By Jesse Phelps
The continuing saga of the Robles fish
passage facility on the Ventura River may be headed toward a
new chapter: construction. According to Rauch Communications,
the public relations firm hired by the Casitas Municipal Water
District, the passage may receive approval from the National
Marine Fisheries Service as soon as March 21.
In a meeting held Feb. 6 in Long Beach, NMFS and Bureau of Reclamation
officials set a schedule to issue a Biological Opinion. This
is "essentially a permit to construct and operate the fish
passage facility," said John Johnson, general manager of
the Casitas District.
According to David Young, Environmental Team Leader at the Bureau
of Reclamation, his bureau has already submitted a biological
assessment, including a completed project description, to National
Marine Fisheries Service.
Jim Leckey, assistant regional administrator for protected resources
at the National Marine Fisheries Service, said, "Based on
that document, we will issue a biological opinion that will assess
the impacts of the project and operations of the facility on
Leckey said, "We're trying to get it out by the middle of
March. Then they (Casitas) have to get other permits. The biological
opinion is a critical factor in getting the other permits. Then
hopefully, they can begin construction by summer."
While that construction project may get the go-ahead, Casitas
Municipal Water District received a cease-and-desist order Feb.
24. from the Bureau of Reclamation related to construction of
the Lazy River water park.
A special meeting has been scheduled for today, at 3 p.m. at
Casitas offices in Oak View. "We're trying to work with
Reclamation to straighten this out," said Johnson.
David Pritchett, with the Southern California Steelhead Coalition,
disputed that assessment. "The district has no respect for
the position of the federal government and is blatantly disregarding
The fish ladder facility, designed to help recover populations
of endangered steelhead trout on the Ventura River, would be
a new feature of the Ventura River Project. Project facilities
are owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and operated by Casitas
Municipal Water District. Casitas holds the water rights for
operation of the project.
The concerned agencies have been working together to take steps
to enhance the status of endangered Southern Steelhead in the
Ventura River since 1996, though they haven't always been on
the same page.
"While we are pleased that a firm date has been set, we're
waiting to see what the Biological Opinion says," Johnson
said, noting that one significant issue between the district
and federal regulators is drought protection. Though NMFS officials
have reiterated many times that they will not require water for
fish in drought years, Casitas has maintained that they are concerned
that providing water for fish during prolonged droughts will
drain the lake.
"This could require cutbacks in water available for customers
- especially for agriculture - raise water pumping costs, impact
water quality, harm recreation and damage the sport fishery in
the lake," said Alex Hulanicki, of Roush.
Leckey said, "The last year and a half of discussion has
focused on the amount of water the fish need. We have tried to
design the passage so it doesn't compromise the safe yield of
the water customers."
Casitas has bemoaned the legal requirements, lawsuits and regulatory
obstacles that have delayed the building of the passage and has
lost $750,000 of $4 million in grant money originally obtained
to help it get the passage up and running.
Mary Larson, senior fisheries biology specialist and Southern
California Fisheries Restoration Grant Coordinator for the Department
of Fish and game, says the initial grant was meant to facilitate
design work and beginning construction. Later, her agency supplied
an additional $1.5 million for "build-out of the ladder"
and a Pacific Coastal Salmonid initiative grant of $750,000,
which was lost due to delays.
Leckey said that Casitas "lost that grant last year because
they weren't able to perform. There are a number of elements
on the project. Now we can redesign the project so that they
can reapply for the same amount of money for a different aspect
of the project."
Larson agreed but tossed in a caveat. "They can always supply
to Coastal Conservancy, to us or another granting program to
recoup those funds. There's nothing preventing them from doing
so. The question is: how will they compete with other applicants?"
Other sources of funding were a Coastal Conservancy grant of
$1 million and a state grant through Proposition 12 of $750,000.
In order to protect its customers and stretch what it terms limited
local water supplies, Casitas said it will be developing more
intensive conservation programs, seeking new sources of water
supply and reviewing its program for allocating limited water
supplies during droughts.
But Johnson said that the big hurdle for moving forward on the
fish passage is the biological opinion.
"In the next week or so, the Bureau of Reclamation will
send NMFS the final project description for the fish passage
facility. The Biological Opinion would then give approval to
Casitas to construct, operate and repair the facility,"
Leckey said that discussion of flow requirements have been the
main holdup in the past but that it's imperative the passage
be constructed nonetheless. "There's a little bit of disagreement
stemming from the modeling of the passage," he said. "We
think that disagreement is what it is but we need to get beyond
it and build the facility. In the world of water, averages mean
very little. In specific
instances where customers need water, we can help make sure they
get it. Likewise, if we're not providing water for fish and we
have a concrete monument in the middle of the stream, we need
to make sure the fish are taken care of. The absolute number
is probably not important at this point. We need to get beyond
that and get some experience."
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