News

Bert Rapp's Op-Ed: Good science will produce proper flow recommendations

3 19 21 steelhead

Photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Spawning Southern California steelhead.

 

By Bert J. Rapp

In the spirit of healthy public awareness and understanding of the flow recommendations for the Ventura River and steelhead history, I would like to offer some thoughts on the March 12 Op-Ed by Paul Jenkin and Alasdair Coyne, “Ventura River will shape our communities.”

I fully agree that the flow recommendations should be based upon solid scientific analysis because they could significantly impact everyone in the Ojai Valley.  

 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.

The Op-Ed was highlighted by a 1912 photograph of fishermen at Wheeler Hot Springs holding a stringer of about 150 trout, 6 to 7 inches, that appeared to be about 2 years old. The interesting background to the picture is that two years earlier, in 1910, about 50,000, three-quarter-inch-long fry were planted in the Ventura River. Also, 1910 through 1912 were wonderfully wet rain years. I am not surprised at their catch under those conditions. 

The Op-Ed also mentioned Henry Sparks’ daily angling diary from 1892 to 1914 where he recorded his abundant catches. It should also be noted that the stocking of fry began in 1887 and about 500,000 fry were planted during the years Mr. Sparks kept his diary. Stocking records can be found in: “History of Steelhead and Rainbow Trout in Ventura County,” United Water Conservation District, 2008.

3 19 Henry Sparks fishing log

It is also important to note that, from 1887 to 1940, millions of three-quarter-inch-long fry were planted. When a trout grows to 4 or 5 inches long, it decides whether to go to sea or stay in the river. After 1940, the Fillmore Fish Hatchery began planting what is referred to as “put and take” 7- to 8-inch trout that are too old to go to sea and return as large steelhead. Coincidentally, large runs of big steelhead stopped in the late 1940s — an era impacted by severe drought, dam building and the end of stocking of tens of thousands of fry annually. 

The new flow recommendation by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife is 15 cubic feet per second at Foster Park for summertime flows. This is dramatically different from the 1 cfs that the Department of Fish and Wildlife calculates for the same area from July to October of dry years as the “natural flows expected with no human influence” (Watershed Criteria Report No. 2020-01). 

There is a perception by some that the natural condition of the Ventura River is a beautifully flowing river all year long with bountiful trout. That is not a natural picture. The dry reaches have always gone dry, except in very wet years, and summer flows have always decreased to drastically less than 15 cubic feet per second in dry years. I fully expect the Surface Water Groundwater Model will show similar results when the state releases the results of the unimpaired analysis in a year or so.       

I believe the best approach is to make sure that adequate flows are sustained, and the habitat is restored. That is why the “Physical Solution” proposed to resolve the health of the fish and the adjudication is so important. It proposes adequate flows and restoring the habitat with an adaptive-management approach into the future.

Even though millions of trout have been planted in the Ventura River since 1887, southern steelhead still survive while the planted trout have not because southern steelhead have evolved to survive the warm, harsh conditions of late summer and fall in our semi-arid environment. There are still southern steelhead in the Ventura River today, even though we went through a very severe drought, have degraded aquatic habitat and suffered the debris flows associated with the post Thomas Fire, flash flood that wiped out Montecito. 

I am confident that with the attention we are all giving to the flow and habitat, the southern steelhead will return to their normal, natural numbers. But don’t expect to be catching 150 at a time, unless stocking of fry resumes with tens of thousands per year being introduced into our river and fishing is legalized again.

 

— Bert J. Rapp, P.E., is general manager of the Ventura Water District.

Online report
View “History of Steelhead and Rainbow Trout in Ventura County,” United Water Conservation District, 2008 online at https://www.unitedwater.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/History-of-Steelhead-11-08.pdf.