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Steelhead Ladder Takes a Big Step Up

Ground is broken for the Ventura River project that will allow endangered trout safe passage from the ocean to spawning areas.

August 29, 2003|Suzie St. John | Special to The Times

Water and environmental officials gathered Thursday to break ground on a multimillion-dollar project designed to open miles of spawning streams to the endangered southern steelhead trout.

The project, which is expected to cost $7 million to $9 million and be completed by next fall, will enable adult steelhead to swim upstream around the Robles Diversion Dam to spawn and allow young steelhead to return downstream to the Pacific Ocean.

The passage, called a fish ladder, will consist of underwater steps that allow the fish to traverse the 7-foot-high dam on the Ventura River northwest of Ojai.

Once numbered in the thousands in Southern California, steelhead became protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1997 after it was learned their numbers had dwindled to a few hundred. The fish ladder is being built to comply with the act.

One reason for the steelhead's decline is that dams such as Robles are an obstruction. Although the steelhead are born in streams, they migrate to the ocean one or two years after birth. They live there for up to four years before returning to the streams to reproduce.

The goal of the fish ladder is to restore the steelhead population, get the fish off the endangered list and put them back on the recreational fishing list.

"It's a situation where it's the right thing do; we are trying to restore the environment to the way we found it," said Chuck Bennett, president of the board of directors of the Casitas Municipal Water District, which supplies water to about 3,000 customers from Ojai to Ventura. "But I have enormous concerns about there being a severe drought and about having enough money for the project."

The California Coastal Conservancy and the California Department of Fish and Game have approved $3.25 million in grants for the fish passage, and the Casitas district has applied for a $1-million grant.

Bennett said that while every source was being explored for additional funds, customers could expect their water bills to go up.

"It won't be one big increase, but there will be slow, incremental increases," Bennett said.

He also said the Casitas district was looking into ways to help residents and businesses conserve water and looking for additional water sources in the event of a shortage.

The reason for the concern is that when the plan was conceived, it was estimated that only 800 acre-feet of river water was needed to flow through the fish ladder annually. It was later learned that federal guidelines required that a minimum of 2,000 acre-feet flow through. An acre-foot is equivalent to 326,000 gallons, enough water to supply two homes for one year.

The water district diverts water from the river to Lake Casitas for storage during the rainy season. With more water going to the fish ladder and less being diverted, officials are concerned there won't be enough water for customers during a drought.

Jim Lecky, Pacific regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, doesn't see the water shortage becoming a problem.

"We understand the concerns about the water supply, but we will be tracking the flow to see how much water is needed for the passage.

"Guidelines are just that. If we need less water, then we will use less water," Lecky said. "If it comes to a severe drought, then we will release the water back to the lake. The main thing is that we can't wait much longer or there won't be any fish left to protect."

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