Santa Paula Times

UWCD: New Freeman Diversion fish
passage projected to cost $60 million

January 28, 2015
Santa Paula News

United Water Conservation District Directors did not hide their dismay over the estimated $60 million price tag especially as some said they are not convinced investing again into the effort to restore artificial habitat for the steelhead trout will work.

But if they have to build a new fish passage ladder to comply with federal Endangered Species Act requirements that’s what they’ll do said UWCD Chairman Lynn Maulhardt, although he noted the agency’s last such effort fell short of success.

The January 14 meeting that featured a presentation from a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) official drew a crowd that  filled the UWCD meeting room at its Santa Paula headquarters.

NMFS is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and is working with United on plans for the fish passage at the UWCD’s Freeman Diversion Dam in the Saticoy area.

The projected cost of $60 million is three times the annual budget of UWCD, whose growers and cities from Lake Piru - where the agency is now struggling with an infestation of the quagga mussel - to the coastal edge of the Oxnard Plain will be charged to help defray costs. 

Anthony Spina, supervisor of NMFS’ Southern California area, told attendees the Freeman Diversion is the “linchpin” in the Santa Clara River’s lower watershed that is a priority for steelhead efforts.

“Is it possible... some say the Santa Clara River is inhospitable to the species” but Spina said it’s not only possible, but “probable” to restore the species. 

The Army Corp of Engineers is “willing to work with us on a mutually” agreed upon project and to “Design it right once and for all,” said Spina.

With the endangered steelhead, UWCD is “responsible to follow the requirements... no more and no less.”

Rather than the linchpin others saw the issue as a lynchpin: Maulhardt and other UWCD directors still questioned steelhead population and habitat issues.

Historical data on the fish, more commonly called rainbow trout, was compiled by the agency in 2008 that showed river and streams were stocked with fish, events that were dutifully recorded in local newspapers and other publications starting in about 1870.  

Maulhardt said he was told the fishing stopped in the 1940s when the aluminum used to manufacture the cans used to transport fish was instead needed for the war effort, and local waters were depleted of stock.

With the varying past failures and new upcoming projects including the fish ladder how benchmarks of success would be determined was questioned as well as the rising costs to growers and other UWCD customers.

“Your goal is to recover the species,” said UWCD Director Mike Mobley “our goal is farming... “

A fish ladder created by UWCD was constructed in 1993 and shortly thereafter the agency was told it was insufficient, a $1.7 million expenditure that Maulhardt said still rankles. 

He outlined the rising costs of water and noted “The problem for us is complex... we will build it, we will operate it, we will comply with the law,” and pay the cost.

But, Maulhardt added, “It is not right or fair to take one environmental issue,” the UWCD aquiver and the water needs of growers and cities, “and trade it off,” for another. 

“We get it,” said Spina who noted NMFS is “not asking for the aquiver to be destroyed... “ 

Jeff Pratt, director of Ventura County Public Works, noted that the county had constructed a fish ladder in Santa Paula Creek, a project mandated to help the steelhead. 

After much “pushing and shoving” with officials regarding placement, the fish ladder was mangled by a 2005 storm and flood event.

Pratt noted the ladder initially cost $3 million and could cost $5 million to replace and he questioned the “massive investment” now required of UWCD. 

“It doesn’t seem fair,” said Pratt, “to put it all on them.”