A species of endangered fish may receive much-needed help if Santa Barbara County obtains expected funding.

In a board meeting Thursday, the California Coastal Conservancy will make the final decision as to whether to disburse $453,000 to Santa Barbara County to work on at least six fish passage improvement projects in local coastal streams. The projects are designed to help revive the population of the steelhead trout, classified as a federally endangered species since 1997.

The steelhead population has been in decline for decades because development along streambeds, logging, water diversions from stream habitats and hydroelectric dams have created blockades that prevent the fish from leaving the ocean and traveling up streams to spawn. The South Coast contains over 400 such barriers to steelhead migration, said Rob Almay, a water agency manager.

Before the barrier removal projects can even begin, the county needs to prepare engineering designs, environmental documentation and permit applications, all of which carry costs of their own. The grant is designed to overcome these initial roadblocks, Almay said.

“The money is there, but we are really in need of engineering, permitting and environmental analysis,” Almay said. “All this is labor-intensive and expensive.”

Though there have been similar fish passage improvement projects along the coasts of California and Oregon, project manager Mary Travis of the Coastal Conservancy said some features of the South Coast present unique problems. One such characteristic is the placement of concrete box culverts – drains -, many of them hundreds of feet long, under Highway 101. These culverts block steelhead access to several streams between Gaviota and the South County line.

“Odd things like debris basins and long culverts under highways make this a very new field for us,” Travis said. “There has been a lot of work done in the North and Northwest to address these barriers, but Southern California is a little behind.”

If the grant goes through, the water agency then expects to receive $10,000 in matching county funds garnered from the federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program, which tries to assist states and local communities in mitigating the effects of human development upon coastlines. Additionally, the county is seeking as much as $200,000 in local matching funds from the Flood Control District, another county agency, or other sources. Travis was optimistic about the possibility of obtaining further funds.

“It is hoped that there will be other entities helping with construction costs,” Travis said. “Our agency will also be consulting with the California Dept. of Fish and Game, Noah Fisheries and Southern California Steelhead Coalition.”