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Environmental groups file lawsuit for water releases from Twitchell Dam

Posted: 11:54 AM, Oct 10, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-10 14:54:00-04

A lawsuit has been filed in federal court on behalf of local environment groups to ask for water releases from Twitchell Dam to protect endangered steelhead in the Santa Maria River.

The lawsuit is being backed by several groups including San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper, Los Padres ForestWatch by the Environmental Defense Center, Cooper & Lewand-Martin, Inc. and Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group. It claims the Santa Maria Valley Water District and Bureau of Reclamation, which operate the dam, are violating the Endangered Species Act. The claim alleges the operators limit the quantity and timing of flows that could potentially cause harmful damage to the steelhead population.

They originally sent dam operators a “Notice Letter” in February of 2019 about the damage being done to the steelhead species. The District and the Reclamation did not make any adjustments, causing the groups to file a lawsuit.

“We hope today’s lawsuit will quickly bring the operators of Twitchell Dam into compliance with the law so that steelhead, one of the most endangered fish species in the United States, have a shot at survival and recovery,” said Maggie Hall, Staff Attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, in a statement.

The groups say in the lawsuit that Twitchell Dam has prevented the upstream and downstream migration of the fish, which stops the normal life cycle for the endangered steelhead. The fish is a type of rainbow trout that produce offspring in coastal streams before migrating into the Pacific Ocean. The groups claim the inadequate flow of water can affect the process by creating dry conditions for the fish.

A study was conducted in 2007 by Stillwater Sciences after the California Coastwater Alliance sued the California Department of Fish and Game asking to look into stream flow studies. The recommendation resulting from the study said to implement a flow regime at Twitchell Dam. The new lawsuit says the dam operators did not enforce this operation.

The lawsuit is asking the operators to put the findings into effect in order to prevent any more damage to the local steelhead population.

There was another similar lawsuit filed by two organizations about this matter back in 2017. That lawsuit claims California law requires dam operators to release enough water for proper flow to keep the fish populations at a healthy, normal rate. This lawsuit is still pending in court.

Southern California steelhead are one of the most endangered fish species across the country. The Santa Maria Dam used to be the second most populated area of steelhead in Santa Barbara County more than 70 years ago. The building of dams has since caused the number of steelhead to decline over time.