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Supreme Court upholds Circuit Court ruling protecting endangered Steelhead fish

Seal of the United States Supreme Court

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. – The U.S. Supreme Court denied a request from the operators of Twitchell Dam to avoid protections for the endangered Southern California Steelhead in the Santa Maria River system on Monday.

The decision leaves a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from last year that the Bureau of Reclamation and the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District can release water from Twitchell Dam to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Circuit Court ruling was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper and Los Padres ForestWatch in 2019 where the plaintiffs alleged that operators at Twitchell Dam were violating the ESA by limiting the quantity and timing of flows in the Santa Maria River downstream, imperiling the Southern California Steelhead population in the waterway.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is an important step in the effort towards restoring endangered Steelhead to this critically important watershed, where fish once numbered in the thousands,” said ForestWatch executive director Jeff Kuyper. “With simple changes to the Dam’s water release schedule, we can give fish a fighting chance at reaching their historic spawning grounds in Los Padres National Forest while maintaining plentiful water supplies for our farms and communities.” 

The Bureau of Reclamation and Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District claimed that they were prohibited from releasing the water based on the 1954 legislation authorizing the construction of Twitchell Dam and the original decision from the district court agreed.

Plaintiffs then appealed that ruling and won. The Ninth Circuit found, "current operation of Twitchell Dam harms Southern California Steelhead by impairing their ability to migrate and reproduce," and further stated that operators of Twitchell Dam would need to comply with both the Dam authorization law as well as the Endangered Species Act stating, "the Agencies have discretion to operate Twitchell Dam for other purposes besides irrigation, conservation, and flood control—including, potentially, adjusting water discharges to support the migration and reproduction of Southern California Steelhead.”

Twitchell Dam is located on the Cuyama River, the northern tributary of the Santa Maria River. The timing and quantity of released water have a notable impact on the ability of the endangered Steelhead to reach their spawning habitat as well as return to the Pacific Ocean as this map shows.

“This decision is a critical step toward recovering Steelhead—one of the most endangered fish species in the United States. The Supreme Court ruling puts an end to the Twitchell Dam operators’ arguments that their hands are tied and that they can avoid compliance with the Endangered Species Act at the expense of Steelhead,” said Maggie Hall, Deputy Chief Counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, which represented Plaintiff Los Padres ForestWatch in their lawsuit and appeal.

The original lawsuit sought to implement recommendations from the Stillwater Study, which was required by law to improve the flow regime from Twitchell Dam and prevent further harm to the Steelhead population.

Those recommendations detailed that the amount of water necessary to provide appropriate timing and magnitude for Steelhead migration would be roughly 4% of the reservoir's average annual amount of stored water and no water would be released in dry years.

“Instead of making modest changes to Dam operations that would allow Steelhead to migrate to and from the Ocean, the Bureau and the District have wasted over three years and countless resources arguing they have no obligation to comply with the clear requirements of the ESA. That tactic has failed,” said Erica Maharg, partner at Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group, which represented San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper along with Sycamore Law in the lawsuit.

Before the construction of several large dams 70 years ago, including Twitchell Dam, the second largest Steelhead run was recorded in Santa Barbara County when an estimated 10,000 fish traveled up the watershed during wet years.

Now, the Southern California Steelhead has been under Endangered Species Act protections since 1997 which was renewed in 2006.

Article Topic Follows: Santa Maria - Lompoc - North County
9th Circuit Court of Appeals
Bureau of Reclamation
cuyama river
Endangered Species Act of 1973
Los Padres ForestWatch
Pacific Ocean
San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper
Santa Barbara
Santa Maria River
santa maria valley
Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District
Southern California Steelhead
Twitchell Dam
U.S. Supreme Court

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Andrew Gillies

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