Efforts to save a once-prolific game fish skidding toward extinction in Southern California are foundering over a dispute about who should get Ventura River water -- the fish or the people of the Ojai Valley.
In a classic confrontation between water users and wildlife advocates, both sides are frustrated with progress to balance competing water needs along the Ventura River.
The dispute threatens to unravel years of planning for a fish ladder over the small Robles Diversion Dam near Ojai, a critical first step to opening miles of spawning streams in the rugged back country of Ventura County.
At the center of the debate is the southern steelhead trout, an endangered species that once numbered in the thousands in Southern California streams. It spends most of its life in the ocean but needs clear, cool creeks to reproduce. Only a few dozen steelhead now make the salmon-like trek upstream to spawn.
"The Ventura River is so important for recovery of the Southern California steelhead that the species will always be endangered unless it can expand into the spawning waters in the mountains," said David Pritchett, program coordinator for the Southern California Steelhead Coalition, an alliance of anglers and environmentalists. "This is going to make or break recovery of the species."
Environmentalists say there is no conflict between fish and people and that enough water exists for both. The fish migrates in winter and spring when rain-swollen streams spill plenty of fresh water into the ocean, allowing the fish a path upstream. "Enough water can be found," Pritchett said. "It's a false conflict, fish versus farmers."
The problem, the local water agency says, is that environmentalists are seeking guaranteed flows, something the fish hasn't had since the 1940s, when dams blocked their access.
"If they do not release adequate flows for steelhead to swim up the river, the fish will die stranded in downstream pools," Pritchett said.
But the local water agency, which supplies water to about 3,000 customers from Ojai to Ventura, says the proposal could spell trouble for growers, who get about half the river water. During drought years, they say, water diverted for fish could dramatically reduce the size of Lake Casitas and possibly lead to water shortages for other users.
"Some people could really get hurt in this if the wrong decisions are made," said John Johnson, general manager of the Casitas Municipal Water District. "If you empty the reservoir, there's not going to be water for the customers. We see it as a risk."
The Casitas water district hired a public relations consultant for about $18,000 to help garner support for its position.
The controversy over the fish is similar to a dispute now playing on waterways throughout the Pacific West. From the Klamath to the San Francisco Bay Delta to the Colorado River, biologists are struggling to balance the needs of fish with farms and growing cities.
Moreover, the current dispute over one small dam on the Ventura River has implications for a bigger and costlier effort to remove the much-larger Matilija Dam further upstream. While removal of the big dam is under study, parties must first find a way for trout to navigate past the Robles Diversion Dam north of Ojai.
The Robles dam diverts water into a canal that flows to Lake Casitas, a reservoir that supplies irrigation and drinking water for the area. A decision was reached shortly after the steelhead trout was declared endangered in 1997 to build a $6-million fish ladder over Robles dam.
While negotiations have resolved many issues, they are stuck on a key point -- how much water to release over the dam to support steelhead during dry spells.
Environmentalists and the National Marine Fisheries Service want assurances that 2,000 acre-feet of water will remain in the river for steelhead. One acre-foot is equivalent to 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two families of four for a year.
"We're not really asking for that much water, just what spills over the dam in a given year," said James Lecky, assistant regional administrator for the fisheries service.
But the Casitas district says that is too much water to dedicate to the fish. During prolonged drought, officials said, providing water for steelhead could nearly empty Lake Casitas, a storage reservoir and popular recreation destination.
State and federal wildlife officials have said they would reconsider their allocation if the lake level fell to 100,000 acre feet, 60% below its capacity.
"In a series of drought years, we'd be in a situation where we'd run out of water," said Ojai tangerine grower Jim Ruch. "You could get to the point where there isn't enough water to go around."
Environmentalists say the way to protect fish and farms in dry years is to encourage less irrigation. Any agreement on water flows could be revisited, they say, if the reservoir is drained too low.
"The majority of the water they [Casitas] use is not for people, but citrus," said Jim Edmondson, conservation director for California Trout Inc., a coalition of anglers and conservationists. "It's oranges versus fish, not people versus fish."
Meanwhile, as the dispute drags on, less money is available for the fish ladder. The state Department of Fish and Game has rescinded $750,000 in grants to help pay for it. An additional $1.5 million is in jeopardy if the dispute carries into 2004.
Environmentalists say that unless an agreement is reached soon, so construction on the ladder can commence next summer, they will proceed with a lawsuit. Three years ago, CalTrout declared its intent to sue under the federal Endangered Species Act, alleging that water diversions in the Ventura River caused destruction of the rare southern steelhead.
"We're in the bottom of the ninth inning," Edmondson said. "The big picture is there were once thousands of fish, and now we count them on the fingers on our hand. The key to recovering these fish is to pass them above Robles. The parties should make a final attempt to negotiate an agreement with a date certain and no more delaying and stalling."