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Steelhead could return to local river

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: August 20, 2008 10:00 p.m.
Updated: October 22, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 

On July 25, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a document that could eventually return steelhead salmon to the Santa Clara River.

In a document that will have major effects on future operations at the Vern Freeman Diversion facility near Santa Paula by the United Water Conservation District, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a final biological opinion concluding that future operation of the facility in the proposed manner could jeopardize the existence of the Southern California steelhead.

A biological opinion is a technical document written after in-depth study by wildlife agency scientists that reviews the proposed human impacts to an endangered species. The agency then determines whether that species can continue to survive.

This biological opinion also laid out a set of actions, termed a “reasonable and prudent alternative,” that United could take to avoid the likelihood of steelhead extinction. This fish was once plentiful in local rivers but is now listed as endangered.

The Freeman Diversion is owned by the United States Bureau of Reclamation and operated by United Water. Starting in May 2005, the National Marine Fisheries Service has been in formal consultation with the bureau under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act on how diversion operations (including the existing fish ladder) affect the steelhead and its critical habitat.

The service document was issued as a result of the need for new operational procedures at the diversion. Under the Endangered Species Act, the bureau must consult with the service if facility operation involves impacts to an endangered species that is within the service’s jurisdiction, as is the case for anadromous species that spend portions of their life cycles in the ocean.

A fish ladder does currently exist at the facility. But it has not allowed successful passage over the past decades of steelhead migrating upstream from the ocean.

The Santa Clara is deemed one of the most important rivers in Southern California for steelhead recovery. The 122-page biological opinion does not specifically define what changes are needed at the facility, but instead calls for convening of a panel of experts to establish interim physical modifications to the facility (to be operational by Dec 21) as well as long-term modifications to be complete by Dec. 31, 2011, when the bureau’s discretion over operation of the diversion lapses.

Recovery of steelhead runs in the Santa Clara River has long been a top priority for the Friends of the Santa Clara River. The southern steelhead was listed as endangered about 10 years ago.

Since then, there has been a plethora of meetings, discussions, issuance of formal and informal documents and studies. But effective action has not ensued, as evidenced by the fact that only a handful of adult steelhead have been observed in the Santa Clara River in recent years.

Friends of the River believes it is time — in fact, way past time — to take the appropriate action.

Potential return of the steelhead to their ancient spawning grounds in the Santa Clara River watershed is exciting news that would not have occurred without the Endangered Species Act. Now proposed rule changes could eliminate such progress toward species protection.

Under the current regulations, federal agencies must consult with scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether a project is likely to harm endangered species or habitat.

The new regulations would:
n Exempt thousands of federal activities from review under the Endangered Species Act
n Eliminate checks and balances of independent oversight
n Limit which effects can be considered harmful
n Prevent consideration of a project’s contribution to global warming
n Set an inadequate 60-day deadline for wildlife experts to evaluate a project in the instances when they are invited to participate — or else the project gets an automatic green light
n Enable large-scale projects to go without review by dividing them into hundreds of small projects
Because these regulations are administrative and not legislative, they won’t need the approval of Congress.

Friends of the River joins with thousands of other local conservation groups and individuals across the nation in asking President Bush to rescind such inappropriate rule-making and let our independent wildlife scientists do their jobs.

Without proper checks and balances, these new rules may simply mean extinction for many of our beautiful and rare plants and animals throughout the United States.

Ron Bottorff is chairman of Friends of the Santa Clara River. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.

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