Op-Ed by Alasdair Coyne and Paul Jenkin: Ventura River flows will shape our communities

 3 12 21 FISH Matilija Creek Wheelers Hot Springs Trout Photo 1912 1

Photo submitted

1912 photo of fish catch at Wheeler's Hot Springs.


By Paul Jenkin and Alasdair Coyne

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recently released draft Ventura River Instream Flow Study has understandably attracted a lot of attention.


Two issues of especial importance may be overlooked in all the clamor, but are important for the public to appreciate.

First, the CDFW’s instream flow study is not the only analysis that will be considered in setting instream flow requirements for the Ventura River. The State Water Resources Control Board is also completing a groundwater/surface water analysis that will provide additional information how surface flows are affected by groundwater interactions. This study will be particularly important to the ongoing groundwater dispute that has been raised by Santa Barbara Channel Keeper, and further complicated by the city of Ventura’s adjudication law suite. Information is also being developed on the groundwater resources of the Ventura River watershed as part of the Groundwater Sustainability Plans required by the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Additionally, the flows to support and recover steelhead and other important fish and wildlife species will receive scrutiny from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Second, the provisional instream flow recommendations identified by the CDFW (and other natural resource agencies) are not derived from the specific size of the historic steelhead population, which is governed by the amount and quality of available habitat. This is why the National Marine Fisheries’ Southern California Steelhead Recovery Plan identifies the removal or modification of artificial barriers such as dams, diversions, and road crossings — to allow fish to gain access to spawning and rearing habitat in upstream tributaries. One of the critical recovery actions identified for the Ventura River is the removal of Matilija Dam to restore access to historic habitat that is blocked by that defunct facility.

Some local water agencies, and commentators have misinterpreted the CDFW’s reference to historic steelhead numbers in their instream flow study, suggesting that past stocking of non-native, hatchery-reared trout had artificially boosted the runs of native steelhead runs in the Ventura River. 

Anglers and outdoor enthusiasts prized the trout and steelhead fishery of the Ventura River long before any significant stocking of hatchery fish occurred in the watershed. Henry Sparks kept a daily angling diary from 1892 to 1914 in which he recorded his abundant catches in the Ventura River and Matilija Creek, many of which he released to return as adult steelhead. The early development of resorts in the upper Ventura River watershed emphasized the trout and steelhead fishing before the construction of Matilija Dam. The sharp decline of both the steelhead runs and the related and dependent trout population, coupled with the accelerated growth of local communities (and increased leisure time) after the end of World War II led to the CDFW’s stocking program in the Ventura River, with the establishment of the CDFW’s Fillmore Fish Hatchery in 1942.

However, there is no evidence that these “put-and-take” stocking programs substantially increased the native steelhead runs in the Ventura River or other California Rivers. The percentage of naturally rearing fish that return from the ocean as adult steelhead is extremely low (about 1.5% tp 2.0%), and the return of artificially stocked non-native, hatchery-reared fish is even lower. 

A large number of scientific investigations on this issue have documented the negative effects of stocking programs on native steelhead runs. Despite the CDFW’s continued stocking of non-native, hatchery-reared trout, long after the steelhead runs in the Ventura River had declined (in late 1940s, following the construction of Matilija Dam in 1948), steelhead runs continued to decline, rather than increase. In fact the “put-and-take program” was intended to provide for lost fishing opportunities from the 1950s through the early 1970s. But the despite the stocking program, daily catch limits fell from 50 to 0, and the CDFW has now stopped any stocking in the anadromous waters of Southern California.

In the March 5 Ojai Valley News article, “Ojai leaders don’t go with the flow,” Bert Rapp from the Ventura River Water District identified several alternative sources of water for local communities: purchase water from somewhere else, reduce our water use, or invest in seawater desalination (as well as more reliance on water from Lake Casitas). These are not mutually exclusive alternatives. So, for residents, the issue is not lack of water options, but the potential additional costs of relying less on existing local supplies. The fish and other wildlife resources of the Ventura River are entirely dependent upon the flows of the Ventura River and do not have the luxury of other options.

The decision on what type of instream flow regime is necessary to support a healthy Ventura River is essentially a scientific one, and will not, and should not, be decided by authors of letters to the editor or guest columnists. However, the political will to support and implement whatever scientifically defensible instream flow regime is identified, is very much a matter of public awareness and understanding. Ultimately, the question raised by the current controversy over dividing the waters of the Ventura River is, “What kind of a community do we want to be?” The residents of the Ojai and Ventura River Valleys have an opportunity to set an example for other communities in California and beyond. 

For further historic Ventura River information, visit

— Paul Jenkin is with the Friends of the Ventura River. Alasdair Coyne leads Keep Sespe Wild. 


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