Report: Southern California’s Signature River in danger

LOS ANGELES — A new report released today urges decision makers in Ventura and Los Angeles counties to adopt sustainable water management practices for the Santa Clara River, known to the Chumash people as the Utom.

The 2022 State of Utom, issued by the Center for Biological Diversity, identifies the main threats and conservation goals for the 116-mile river, which stretches from the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County to the Pacific Ocean in Ventura County. It is the largest watershed in Southern California and home to more than 110 special status animals and plants. The river is threatened by development, water diversions, and other harmful practices that could decimate habitat for fish such as the unarmoured three-spined stickleback, California red-footed frog, and other sensitive species.

“Southern California is very fortunate to have a gem like Utom, and we have to be careful to preserve it,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the center. “Watershed overpumping and invading development could quickly turn this biological hotspot into a faint memory. Luckily we have a roadmap to secure the future of this unique river.”

The report, which outlines key strategies for long-term watershed protection, comes five years after a landmark settlement was achieved at Newhall Ranch, a development along six miles from Utom. Conservation groups such as the Center, the Wishtoyo Foundation, and the California Native Plant Society, along with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, have challenged residential and commercial development for decades. In 2017, an agreement was struck that reduced the project’s footprint, secured infrastructure for solar and electric vehicles, and preserved thousands of acres of wildlife habitat.

Since then, conservation groups have also secured protection for the endangered steelhead at the Vern Freeman Dam, prevented a Los Angeles County construction project from crossing a creek that empties into Utom, and awarded $100,000 in scholarships to undergraduate students brought to life dedicated to protecting the watershed.

Utom or Phantom River was named by the Chumash because its flow of water can come and go like a phantom. To protect the ecological health of the watershed, the report calls for policies that ban development in sensitive areas along the river, reduce groundwater pumping, and encourage regional water recycling and other water conservation strategies.

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