Interests of its Member Agencies on the South Coast
Cachuma Project Water Rights
The Cachuma Project was constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) during the early 1950's to provide a reliable water supply for the South Coast of Santa Barbara County and a portion of the Santa Ynez Valley. Since that time, the Cachuma Project has operated in accordance with a series of water rights orders issued by the State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) that allowed for trial periods to provide for downstream water rights. The history of the water rights permits issued for the Cachuma Project involves an operational regime carefully developed among Reclamation, the Cachuma Project Member Units, and downstream water rights holders. The State Board has issued revised Cachuma Project water rights orders in 1973, 1988, 1989, 1994 and most recently in September 2019. Historically, the primary uses of Cachuma water have been for people and agriculture. The recent water rights decision also includes provisions to protect endangered Southern California steelhead in the Santa Ynez River.
1958: Santa Ynez River Water Rights Permits First Issued
In 1958, the State Board issued water rights permits to Reclamation to store and use flood flow waters from the Santa Ynez River to provide a critically needed water supply for agricultural and urban users along the South Coast of Santa Barbara County and in the Santa Ynez Valley. Reclamation completed construction of Bradbury Dam in 1953, which formed Lake Cachuma. Reclamation holds the Cachuma Project water rights permits for the benefit of the five Cachuma Project Member Units.
1973 through 1989: Water Rights Updated
State water rights permits can only be changed through a separate decision-making process by the State Board. Over time, modifications to the Cachuma permits were made to address the amounts, timing, and rates of water releases past Bradbury Dam required to satisfy downstream water rights. The State Board held hearings and issued revised water rights orders in 1973, 1988, and 1989, and the terms of the Cachuma Project permits were modified accordingly.
1990: Fisheries Studies First Required
In 1990, the State Board held a consolidated hearing in response to a complaint filed by the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance (CALSPA) against Reclamation, alleging that Reclamation's operation of the Cachuma Project was adversely affecting steelhead trout in the lower Santa Ynez River. At that time, no studies of the fishery in the river had been done to validate or refute this claim. The hearing was recessed to further evaluate measures needed to protect the remnant steelhead fishery.
As beneficiaries of the Cachuma Project, Reclamation turned this responsibility over to the Cachuma Member Units acting through Cachuma Conservation Release Board (CCRB) and the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District ID No.1. A long-term study plan was drafted for the purpose of ultimately developing a Fish Management Plan for the Lower Santa Ynez River. Santa Barbara County was in the midst of an extreme drought, so the studies did not begin in earnest until 1993, when a number of public agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding to carry out fisheries, riparian vegetation, and hydrologic studies to determine the status of the steelhead and its habitat below Bradbury Dam.
1994 to 2000: More Fisheries Studies
In 1994, the State Board again determined that additional information was needed before it could take final action to protect downstream water rights and public trust resources, namely steelhead, and ordered Reclamation to complete further studies by 2000. It directed State Board staff to prepare for and schedule a hearing to address CALSPA's complaint, extending the hearing until the year 2000 to allow additional time for the vegetation, hydrology, and fisheries studies to be completed along the river. In doing so, the State Board appeared to recognize the need for a consensus based operational regime that could provide necessary protection for steelhead and its habitat, as well as agreement among the parties regarding downstream water rights.