Legal victory secures protection for Santa Clara River Steelhead

Conservation groups have scored a key courtroom victory for endangered Southern California steelhead harmed by operation of the Vern Freeman Dam on the Santa Clara River.

In a 152-page decision issued by Honorable Judge David O. Carter, the court found United Water Conservation District violated the federal Endangered Species Act by clearly causing past, ongoing, and future harm to steelhead as a result of the dam’s barrier to fish movement and diversion of water. 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 ordered measures needed to prevent the harm from continuing and to allow for steelhead recovery.

The 1,200-foot-wide, 25-foot-high Freeman Dam’s ineffective fish ladder, combined with United’s diversion of the Santa Clara River’s flow at the dam, prevent steelhead from returning to their prime upstream spawning habitat in the river and migrating to the ocean.

Southern California steelhead are a federally protected, endangered anadromous fish that mature in the ocean but return inland to spawn in freshwater upstream. The Santa Clara River historically supported thousands of steelhead and is critical for the recovery of steelhead throughout their range.

The court’s ruling requires United to immediately ensure the river has sufficient flows for steelhead to swim the 10.5-mile stretch of river to and from the ocean. In addition, by January 2020, the court’s ruling requires United to fully design both a 400-foot wide notch and a hardened ramp solution to allow fish to migrate past the dam, and to construct the fish passage option acceptable to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Filed in federal court in June 2016, the lawsuit was decided after an 11-day trial with testimony from some of the most esteemed steelhead and fish passage experts.

The groups were represented at trial by lead counsel Christopher Sproul of Environmental Advocates; Jason Weiner, senior attorney and general counsel of Wishtoyo Foundation; Geneva EB Thompson, staff attorney for Wishtoyo Foundation; and Heather Kryczka of Environmental Advocates.

The Wishtoyo Foundation is a community-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit with over 700 members consisting of Ventura County residents, Chumash Native Americans, and the general public that enjoys, depends on, and visits Ventura County’s inland and coastal waterbodies to protect, preserve, and restore the ecological integrity and water quality of Ventura County’s inland waterbodies, coastal waters, and watersheds.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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