Vern Freeman Dam Fish Passage Notice of Intent to Sue

In May 2009 Wishtoyo Foundation and its Ventura Coastkeeper Program issued a 60 day notice of intent to sue United Water Conservation District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation under the Endangered Species Act, whose operation of the Vern Freeman Dam and its dysfunctional fish ladder on the Santa Clara River is jeopardizing the continued existence of the endangered “Isha’kowoch” (Chumash name for Southern California Steelhead), a resource that is critical to the ecological integrity of the Santa Clara River and Chumash Culture. 

Wishtoyo’s and its Ventura Coastkeeper Program’s notice of intent to sue United Water Conservation District helped result in United’s then rapid settlement with Cal Trout promising to provide fish passage around the Vern Freeman Diversion Dam.

To view VCK Press Release, please Click Here

To view Ventura County Reporter's May 28, 2009 article about this effort Click Here
To view Cal Trout Settlement Press Release, please Click Here

Vern Freeman Diversion Dam Background:

Integral to the ecological and cultural restoration of the Santa Clara River is the revitalization of Southern California Steelhead. The Santa Clara River once supported runs of 7,000 to 9,000 Southern California Steelhead per year to its tributaries for spawning. It now only sees runs of 0-2 steelhead per year to its tributaries, largely due to the operation of a non-functional fish ladder at the Vern Freeman Diversion Dam and the dam’s flow schedule, which dewaters downstream stretches of the River precluding the availability of a continuous migration corridor for steelhead passage. 

Because of its proximity to the estuary on the Santa Clara and the Pacific Ocean, fish passage at Vern Freeman is of vital importance to migration, breeding and spawning of all steelhead in the Santa Clara watershed. The Dam blocks steelhead access to 99% of it watershed, including the Sespe, Piru, and Santa Paula Creek which provide high quality habitat for steelhead spawning and rearing. The habitat in Sespe Creek and Santa Paula Creek watersheds are of a quantity and quality that the area could one day be maintained as large and naturally reproducing population for the purpose of preserving this endangered species, providing refuge during droughts and the only place where reproduction of native steelhead is occurring. 

Ensuring the United Water Conservation District’s and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s compliance with NMFS 2008 biological opinion regarding the operation of the Vern Freeman Diversion Dam, provides an opportunity to ensure a functioning fish passage is built and sufficient flows are released to maintain a continuous river corridor for fish passage.  A functional fish passage and the restoration of the natural flow regime that all species living in the Santa Clara river have evolved to depend upon, will profoundly restore the ecological integrity of the Santa Clara River.