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Santa Maria River lawsuit over steelhead trout

The winter rains have helped ease the local drought with rising levels in local reservoirs but its also created a legal battlefield as to where the precious water should go.

Some say it should go into local rivers to save endangered steelhead trout with water needed to help them spawn and stay alive.

Two local environmental groups have joined in a lawsuit against the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District seeking to get water releases in the nearly bone-dry Santa Maria River from Twitchell Reservoir that has filled from the winter rains.

“They are required under the law to provide enough flow downstream of the dam to maintain a healthy fish population”, says Gordon Hensley with San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper which joined Los Padres ForestWatch in the lawsuit.

The groups contend the water releases won’t adversely affect water supplies for domestic or agricultural users.

“There was a flow study done not too long ago before 2010, that a flow at the time when the river is running high enough to break the sandbar, we’d like that flow to remain, to stay for a week”, Hensley says, “that gives enough time for the steelhead to run up stream and the trout to run back downstream and back out to the ocean.”

“They never told us that, they’ve never been to one of our meetings”, says Tom Gibbons with the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District.

Gibbons says his agency has not yet seen or been served with the lawsuit but he adds the water in Twitchell Reservoir is already obligated to local stakeholders.

“Bringing the fish to the confluence of Twitchell Dam is not where they come from, they gotta go right past the Cuyama River, and right up the Sisquoc River another 23 miles”, Gibbons says, “you gotta release water at the right time, you gotta combine that water with other water so that those fish can do a continuous travel from the high tide line all the way to the Nira Campground, the chances of that happening, you gotta read the inflow study, read the conclusion, because mathematically that doesn’t happen, so its not our water that brings them where they need to go, we would be a supplement to that.”

The lawsuit has been filed in Santa Barbara County Superior Court and is unrelated to water releases from Lake Cachuma into the Santa Ynez River for steelhead trout habitat restoration.

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