The Salinas River, seen near its mouth at the ocean, is steelhead trout habitat. Officials are looking at strategies to get fish upstream of the Nacimiento Dam, including fish ladders or elevators. DANIEL DREIFUSS

CA - New drought realities will shift how the county prioritizes Salinas River steelhead trout. Monterey County Weekly /

The Salinas River’s steelhead trout population was healthy enough in the 1950s that not enough hell was raised to stop the construction of the Nacimiento Dam, which effectively cut off steelhead trout from over 100 miles of habitat.

When the National Marine Fisheries Service signed off on a dam reservoir release program proposed by the Monterey County Water Resources Agency in 2007 to help feed the Salinas Valley Water Project – critical to health of agriculture downstream – the possibility of extended droughts was known, but not yet a default mode of life in Monterey County. The federal government’s signature protected the MCWRA from Endangered Species Act violations as long as they stuck to the approved plan.

Today, the Salinas River steelhead trout is listed as a threatened species, and winters have become drier for longer. The 2012-16 drought sparked a lawsuit from nonprofit The Otter Project, claiming MCWRA’s plan wasn’t doing enough to protect local steelhead. The federal government rescinded its approval and said if the MCWRA was to be protected against Endangered Species Act violations, they would need a new plan that accounts for modern climate reality.

Now National Marine Fisheries is asking MCWRA to have an interim plan in place by October. It is an early step in a yearslong effort toward a more definitive plan that could change how the Salinas Valley Water Project operates and prioritizes steelhead trout.

As part of that more comprehensive effort, MCWRA is initiating a feasibility study for strategies to allow steelhead to breach the dam. One possibility could be to load them into a truck and release them on the other side.

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