It is ironic to hear United Water Conservation District complaining about wanting to see "some results" at the Freeman Diversion Dam steelhead fish ladder on the Santa Clara River ("Freeman Dam Fish Ladder Spawns Debate Over Water Use," March 7).
We know southern steelhead still inhabit the Santa Clara, because juveniles travel downstream to the ocean by the thousands each winter and at least half a dozen adults have been temporarily trapped in the Freeman Diversion fish ladder.
Only 10 days after the water district's reported demand for results at the Freeman Diversion, an adult steelhead actually arrived in their fish screen bay. A real, dead, upstream-migrating adult steelhead, 22 inches long, a female full of eggs, returned to spawn from perhaps thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. How did it get there? The water district says it doesn't know.
Marcin Whitman of the National Marine Fisheries Service, in a letter dated May 30, 1991, warned that the fish ladder's "facilities were being operated improperly. Any adult or juvenile fish present would be unable to pass. Corrections needed did not even incur any loss of water to the district." In a letter dated March 4, 1994, the water district's president, Dan Pinkerton, acknowledged that the technology of the fish counter (since removed) was "new and largely experimental at best." There have been ongoing technical problems but the steelhead are certainly not at fault.
District officials may have made promises and shown some genuine effort, but they still have no full-time biologist on staff when steelhead are likely to be moving upstream to spawn. The operation of a fish ladder is an extremely complex and precise task, requiring frequent skilled adjustments to attract migrating steelhead to the base of the ladder during storm flows. The water district's posture is that it has done all it can, so where are the steelhead? The district implies that it's somehow the fish's fault for not using the ladder at Freeman Diversion.
The water district has never cared much for steelhead or for fish ladders. As water district General Manager Fred Gientke stated in The Times on March 25, 1999, his policy is to promote steelhead "until the federal government says otherwise." In other words, the district is trying to help steelhead only because it has to, by law.
On the Santa Clara River, estimated steelhead runs in the first half of this century were about 9,000 adult fish a year. Fishermen lined the Santa Clara River and Sespe Creek for miles in steelhead season. Then came the earthen dams that preceded the concrete Freeman Diversion and the rapid demise of the steelhead and steelhead fishing.
The water district is out of touch. There is a groundswell of support for steelhead restoration in Ventura County. Residents of all ages are excited about the prospect of constructing a new fish ladder at Robles Diversion Dam on the Ventura River. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) has expressed interest in seeking federal funding for a study of removing Matilija Dam (soon to become a liability for Ventura County) to restore steelheads' ability to reach their former upstream habitat.
So what does the water district hope to achieve by drawing such public attention to its own poor operation of Freeman Diversion Dam's fish ladder? District officials know that the Santa Clara River and Sespe Creek together comprise a vital habitat and corridor for the southern steelhead's survival. What district officials really want is for the steelhead to go away. Their mind-set is water and not much else, regardless of whether water comes from an environment that happens to sustain other native life forms.
It's time for the water district to live up to its responsibility as a guardian of the gate--the Freeman Diversion Dam fish ladder--for the steelhead run in the Santa Clara River. This responsibility is here to stay, as are the steelhead, however much the district might wish they would disappear. If it turns out that the adult steelhead recently killed by the district's poor operation of the fish ladder is native (as opposed to hatchery) stock, a bright federal spotlight will be turned on Freeman Diversion. That spotlight may well pressure the district to operate it properly, after all these years and all its foot-dragging.
United Water Conservation District's motto, "conserving water since 1927" could just as well be "conserving water and killing fish since 1927." Both are equally true.