Lawsuit filed over timing of Twitchell Dam water releases

May 10, 2017

Two Central Coast environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District in an effort to improve habitat for local endangered fish.

The groups said they want to change the way the district releases water into the Santa Maria River watershed from the Twitchell Dam to help save the endangered Southern California steelhead trout from extinction. The National Marine Fisheries Service listed the southern steelhead as an endangered species in 1997.

Jeff Kuyper is from Los Padres ForestWatch, one of the groups who filed suit.

“We’re asking the water district to fulfill its legal obligations,” Kuyper said. “And those require the water district to provide enough water in the river to allow steelhead to swim in it.”

The lawsuit specifically points out the California Fish and Game Code Section 5937, which states, “the owner of any dam shall allow water to pass over, around or through the dam to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.”

Kuyper said what they’re asking for will not affect regulations concerning occasional droughts.

“We’re not asking for additional water releases with this lawsuit,” Kuyper said. “What we are asking for [is] to improve how water releases are timed.”

Like salmon, steelhead spend most of their lifecycle in the ocean, but must return to freshwater streams to spawn. Unlike salmon, steelhead do not die after spawning and need enough water flow in the freshwater streams to get up and back to the ocean.

KCBX reached out to the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District requesting comment and did not receive a response.*

Gordon Hensley of the San Luis Obispo Coastkeepers, one of the plaintiffs, said the environmental groups tried on multiple occasions to work with the District but got nowhere, hence the lawsuit.

UPDATE 5/11/17: Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District Board member Tom Gibbons telephoned KCBX on Thursday afternoon, May 11. He said the board was served with a "four-inch-thick stack" of  legal paperwork on Wednesday, May 10, 2017 and that the Board would provide comment as soon as the District and its counsel had an opportunity to review the suit.