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Central California coast steelhead trout
The Carmel Pine Cone, January 7, 2011

Big Sur River becomes latest steelhead battleground
By Chris Counts

Is El Sur Ranch harming the Big Sur River by pumping too much water from two wells at Andrew Molera State Park?

That’s what two state agencies and a fishermen’s group claim as they oppose a permit for the ranch to continue pumping from the wells, which its owners have done since 1949.

The State Water Resources Control Board will conduct a hearing March 8 to consider an application by the ranch to pump an average of 1,200 acre-feet per year from the river over a 20-year period.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation, the California Department of Fish and Game, and  he California Sportfishing Protection Alliance filed protests against the proposal, insisting that the pumping is reducing flows in the Big Sur River, creating salt water intrusion and jeopardizing the survival of Central Coast steelhead trout, the California red-legged frog and the Southwestern pond turtle, each of which is listed as threatened or endangered. State parks also claims the ranch is pumping more water than it needs to irrigate its pastures, resulting in runoff and erosion.

The landmark 7,000-acre ranch, much of which forms a scenic corridor along Highway 1, is owned by Jim Hill. The ranch irrigates about 267 acres with water from the river, although only about 25 of those acres lie within the Big Sur River watershed.

Two decades of contention

The controversy started in 1990, when state parks filed a complaint against El Sur Ranch alleging it was taking water from the river’s underground flow, and not from a separate aquifer. In 1992, the SWRCB agreed, and required El Sur Ranch to get a permit to use the wells. The agency also “allowed” the ranch to continue using the wells while the permit was being processed.

But 19 years later, the issue remains unresolved. According to attorneys from the ranch, studies were launched, hearings were conducted, applications were revised and an environmental impact report was rejected. Attorney Mark Blum insisted the ranch has tried to resolve the dispute in a timely manner. “We have been cooperating in good faith,” Blum said.

The ranch released a new EIR in October 2009. According to the document, strict limits on pumping would be enacted during the driest months of the year, when the ranch would divert a maximum of 735 acre-feet from July 1 through Oct. 31 and pump no more than 230 acre-feet during a single month.

In response, a consortium of environmental groups — including the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the River, Los Padres Forest Watch, the Sierra Club’s Ventana chapter, the Ventana Wilderness Alliance and the sportfishing alliance — accused the ranch of simply delaying the inevitable judgment against it. “It is clear that El Sur Ranch has used the water rights application process to delay remedial action and avoid culpability,” a joint statement by the groups reads.

Is the ranch breaking the law?

In addition to their claim that El Sur Ranch has delayed the resolution of the case, some of the groups insist its existing pumping is illegal, regardless of what the SWRCB told the ranch in 1992.

“In 1990, El Sur Ranch was caught illegally diverting from the river,” reads a quote from California Sportfishing Protection Alliance executive director Bill Jennings that was used last week in a press release. “Finally, after almost two decades of illegal diversions ...” begins another comment.

Blum, though, said the ranch has “has not been cited for any illegal activity” pertaining to its pumping from the river. He also insisted the ranch has permission from the SWRCB to pump water from the river while its application is being processed, although the state agency has placed a limit on how much water the ranch can pump.

“The board requested and obtained the ranch’s agreement not to divert more than 3.5 acre-feet annually per acre pending a hearing on the application,” Blum explained. A spokesman for the SWRCB, however, said there is no formal agreement between the agency and El Sur Ranch. “Technically, what they are doing is illegal,” explained Dave Clegern, who works in the agency’s public affairs office. “We have chosen not to enforce our authority.”

Not enough fish?

Environmentalists insist that not only is the pumping illegal, it is diminishing the number of steelhead in the river. But Blum points out the National Marine Fisheries Service has the following statement regarding “South- Central California Coast” steelhead posted on its website: “All of the four largest watersheds (Pajaro, Salinas, Nacimiento/Arroyo Seco and Carmel rivers) have experienced declines in run sizes of 90 percent or more. Only a few populations along the Big Sur Coast have retained near historic numbers.”

While the CDFG isn’t specifically counting the number of steelhead in the river, the agency is seeking to find out how much water is necessary to sustain its existing population of the fish. The agency launched a lengthy study this past summer. Since the study is not expected to be completed until at least 2012, it’s unlikely to be much help at the March hearing. When asked this week if the agency can say how much water is needed in the river for the steelhead, Robert Holmes, an instream flow program coordinator for the CDFG, conceded he didn’t know. “That’s why we’re doing the study,” Holmes said.

Despite the lack of evidence, longtime steelhead activist and Big Sur resident Jack Ellwanger said he believes the pumping by the ranch is significantly reducing the amount of water in the river. “The lagoon is getting graveled up,” Ellwanger said. “It doesn’t have the volume it needs.”

Yet Ellwanger has also seen recent signs that steelhead are still thriving in the river — despite the impacts of development and periodic natural disasters like fires and flooding. “I was down at Molera the other day, and I saw a lot juveniles leaping the air,” he added. “It was great to see.”

Who gets their water first?

When the SWRCB meets in March, they will also consider whether another water application deserves a higher priority. In 1998, the Division of Water Rights determined that a well owned by the Clear Ridge Mutual Water Company, which serves 42 properties on nearby Clear Ridge, was pumping water from the underground flow of the river. In response, the water company filed an application the following year with the SWRCB, which approved the request last month. The permit allows the water company to pump up to 42 acre-feet annually. The well is located upstream from El Sur Ranch.

In September, the water company asked the SWRCB’s Division of Water Rights to grant its application priority over the ranch’s application because they say California water law states that domestic uses of water are more beneficial to the public than agricultural uses. Since the Clear Ridge Mutual Water Company already had its application approved, it’s unclear how it would be affected if the SWRCB approves the El Sur Ranch permit and denies the water company’s request to make its pumping a higher priority.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton