Major Steelhead Victory Along the Santa Clara River!

After years of hard work, we have special news to share in what is the biggest legal victory led by Wishtoyo to date:

We have prevailed in our Steelhead Endangered Species Act Case Against United Water Conservation District! The victory is critical for the survival and recovery the Southern California Steelhead, Chumash lifeways and cultural practices, the wellbeing of the Santa Clara River’s communities, and all species in the Santa Clara River watershed. 

As to United’s liability, the court specifically found in a 152-page decision that United violated the federal Endangered Species Act by causing past, ongoing, and future harm to steelhead as a result of the dam’s barrier to fish movement and diversion of water.

   United's 1,200 foot wide and 25 foot tall Vern Freeman Diversion Dam blocking steelhead migration on the Santa Clara River 10.5 miles upstream from the ocean.

United's 1,200 foot wide and 25 foot tall Vern Freeman Diversion Dam blocking steelhead migration on the Santa Clara River 10.5 miles upstream from the ocean.

As to the remedy, after finding that United “dragged its feet” on critical solutions, and that “United has proved itself unable and unwilling to tackle the two key problems repeatedly identified as perpetuating harm to steelhead," Judge Carter issued a Permanent Injunction and Judgment providing that United must:

(1) release sufficient in-stream flows for Steelhead migration on the Santa Clara River,

(2) complete 100% design and engineering of two fish passage alternatives over and through the Dam within 2 years, and

(3) construct the preferred Steelhead passage alternative that meets National Marine Fisheries Service's criteria in 2 years from the agency regulatory approvals.

   Current fish ladder insufficient for Steelhead migration that will be replaced with a Steelhead passage solution through the Dam per Wishtoyo legal victory.

Current fish ladder insufficient for Steelhead migration that will be replaced with a Steelhead passage solution through the Dam per Wishtoyo legal victory.

It was a grueling case that included an 11-day bench trial in December 2017 and January 2018, but an amazing performance by Wishtoyo and our wonderful team of attorneys including Chris Sproul with Environmental Advocates, Jason Weiner and Geneva Thompson of Wishtoyo, Heather Kryczka, John Buse of Center for Biological Diversity, and Fred Evenson was more than worth the effort.

We were also fortunate to work with an outstanding team of experts - the best in their fields - including Sharon Kramer of H.T. Harvey (Steelhead), Chris Hammersmark of cbec eco engineering (Hydrology and Steelhead Passage Engineer), and Mary J. Whitfield of Southern Sierra Research Station (Southwestern Willow Flycatcher). Thanks so much to our amazing co-plaintiffs Center for Biological Diversity for their partnership and much appreciated contribution to this case as well, and all of our incredible funders, supporters, volunteers, and staff that made all this possible, including Kote Melendez, Tevin Schmitt, and Curtis Bradley of Center for Biological Diversity, all three of whom helped with evidence generation and presentation in the case[J1] .

   Steelhead netted by United after being blocked from migrating to its spawning grounds by United's Vern Freeman Dam.

Steelhead netted by United after being blocked from migrating to its spawning grounds by United's Vern Freeman Dam.

Chumash people have a strong cultural interest in the recovery of the Isha’kowoch (Southern California steelhead / glistening salmon), which for more than 10,000 years have played a significant role in sustaining a healthy Santa Clara River ecosystem, physically and spiritually connected to Chumash culture and communities.

“By eliminating physical barriers to steelhead passage, we are not only protecting an endangered species, but we are also overcoming barriers that have interrupted the continuity of our ancestral traditions. Steelhead hold a central and honored place in our culture. Restoring instream flows to the Santa Clara River allows steelhead access to their spawning sites, and also allows restoration of our ancestral connection celebrating the seasonal return of the steelhead through our shared waters,” said Mati Waiya, a ceremonial elder of the Santa Clara River Turtle Clan and executive director of the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation. “Our victory today is important for all First Nations Peoples that place a critical cultural value on steelhead that were once abundant in our coastal watersheds.”

   Steelhead in the Sespe Creek tributary to the Santa Clara River

Steelhead in the Sespe Creek tributary to the Santa Clara River

“The court’s decision affirms a well-known fact amongst fish passage experts, people who are knowledgeable about steelhead in Southern California, and state and federal fisheries agencies: United’s operation of the Vern Freeman Dam is a barrier to the migration of steelhead on the Santa Clara River and has led to decimation of the species in the watershed and beyond,” said Jason Weiner, Senior Counsel for the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation.

“More importantly, the decision brings an end to over 20 years of inaction by United to implement steelhead passage and flow-release solutions at the Dam that are needed for steelhead survival and recovery. Restoring steelhead to the Santa Clara River is now possible and critical not only for the species, but for so many of the River’s communities whose wellbeing is dependent upon their rights to enjoy and benefit from a healthy river system. In addition, the decision continues to allow for the diversion of sufficient water for the maintenance of sustainable agriculture and municipal use in the Santa Clara River watershed and Oxnard Plain.”

The Decision, Judgment/Permanent Injunction, our press release, and newspaper articles can be found at: http://www.wishtoyo.org/558350abe4b0d3ba33cfc6c0/