Malibu’s steelhead habitat restoration ramps up with new money

AT MORE THAN 8,000 acres, Malibu Creek State Park includes the old “M.A.S.H.” television set and the Reagan Ranch. (Credit: Jim Burns)

Malibu’s Las Virgenes Water District was in the news last summer because of gross home watering overuse by celebrities such as Kim Kardasian, Kevin Hart and Sylvester Stallone. But in the shadow of the rich and famous of Calabasas and Lost Hills, conservationist Debbie Sharpton has quietly and insistently been preparing for the return of the endangered Southern California Steelhead, which means first ridding the watershed of persistent invasive species. 

CONSERVATIONIST Debbie Sharpton at Century Lake in Malibu Creek State Park. (Credit: Jim Burns)

One of her prime targets is the invasive red swamp crayfish, better suited to a crayfish boil in New Orleans than in Santa Monica Mountain streams, yet here they are. Sharpton’s current efforts are aimed at eradication of the crayfish, which can devastate native wildlife, including the already threatened California red-legged frog. Crayfish directly compete for resources that native Arroyo Chub, and one day steelhead, need to survive. Other invasives for Sharpton include carp, bass and catfish.

Each month, Sharpton directs removal of these small creatures through baited traps that look like funnels and simulate crayfish burrows. Once inside, a crayfish can’t escape until it is removed by gloved volunteers, it’s fate to become bait for the next round of the trap checking.

As I stand in the low-flowing waters of Tapia Creek assisting young college volunteers to check crayfish traps, I can’t see the remnants of the “M.A.S.H.” television show production set, nor the Reagan Ranch. My focused attention is on not getting my fingers snapped by wary crayfish claws. As we slowly move upstream, our Home Depot bucket is full of writhing crustaceans, along with large mouth bass fry, tiny catfish, stinging spines intact, and juvenile carp. 

“Basically, we go in teams of two, so you have the lead trapper and an assistant trapper,” Allison Linsey says.” “As the trapper, you’re the one who kind of makes the decisions, you decide when traps need to be replaced or taken out. You’re also responsible for entering all the data we collect.”

The traps dot much of the riparian areas of Malibu Creek State Park. Stream areas are divided up into sections, with each section’s traps checked at least every three days. That puts these teams in the water for several shifts per week. 

INSIDE Malibu Creek State Park, a trapping team gets ready to move into another section. (Credit: Debbie Sharpton)

“We start around 8:30 in the morning,” says another volunteer, Amanda Chi.” Then maybe we would end around noon. At first, it was surreal to because it’s my first time doing fieldwork. But just being in the river early in the morning. It was really beautiful.”

Volunteers also include fly-fishers who are committed to conservation. Tools of the trade on any given day might be a fly rod for “catch and take” fishing, seine netting, which forms a barrier across a stream and scoops up its inhabitants (not as easy as it sounds …), and those crayfish traps. 

Financial and technical support for the project comes from California State Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the National Park Service, Santa Monica Mountains.

While this slow work may seem akin to David battling Goliath, further south the San Diego Regional Water Board may significantly up the ante in the fight to rid California streams of invasive pests. If passed into law this spring, invasive species would join mercury, lead and other toxics under Section 303 (d) of the Clean Water Act. The plan would enable collaborative watershed planning and restoration activities to be eligible for state and federal funding. 

“I’d like to lobby the L.A. Regional Water Board to move on getting Malibu Creek a TMDL for non-native aquatic species,” Sharpton says.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Council of Fly Fishing International, where Sharpton is the Vice President of Conservation, has received a donation of $5,000 from Sierra Pacific Flyfishers to begin a new conservation program called “Fishing for Conservation: Steelhead Recovery in Malibu Creek.” It will commence this spring after the frogs finish breeding. 

Her years-long conservation efforts, first as Executive Director of Mountains Restoration Trust and now with Environmental Restoration Group, LLC, have reached an inflection point with the anticipated downing of the Malibu’s Rindge Dam. Some two and a half miles from the coast, the dam stops the natural steelhead route from the Santa Monica Bay to Malibu lagoon, inland to spawn.

Built in the 1920s, Rindge was decommissioned in 1967, yet still stands. It is actually part of Malibu Creek State Park, the 8,215-acre gem that includes remnants of the “M.A.S.H” television set, as well as the Reagan Ranch. 

Vistas truly earn the moniker of “breathtaking,” with one peak that soars more than 2,700 feet. California Department of State Parks owns and manages the dam, as well as the park.

For Sharpton, all of this natural beauty includes the flora and fauna that rightfully belong here — and excludes those that don’t. 

“I’m hoping to engage the lake managers by assisting them to reduce the amount of unwanted non-native fish in their waters.  I don’t know the source population, it may be people moving fish for recreational fishing, it may be storm overflows moving the fish downstream,” Sharpton says. 

Drone footage shows natural power of refugia on the LA River

Ask any stream fisherman where to find trout and one of the answers will be “Behind the rocks.” That’s exactly what this brilliant drone video from Trout Unlimited’s Bob Blankenship shows to be true on a long, lonely stretch of wet concrete here in LA. If you are in a hurry, go to about minute 2 and you’ll see big carp hanging out behind the few rocks on this desolate river run. Most of this trench is a foot deep by maybe three foot. That ain’t much room for anything, much less a school of 16-inch-plus carp.

When I saw this, I thought to myself, anytime you give nature half a chance, it comes back. With a little help from us, in the form of shade, boulders and occasional slower water, we could see a return of the fish we really want — endangered So. Cal. steelhead. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that there are no fish in what look to be uninhabitable sections of our river. And where there are fish, there are birds! Anyway, check this video out!

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Three views of a raging LA River

Many thanks to William Preston Bowling, Trout Unlimited South Coast chapter president, for these up close and personal videos of the majesty — and danger — of the LA when it rains.

With our seemingly never-ending drought, we need engineers to come up with a way to secure all this fresh rain water that’s racing out to the ocean, along with tons of trash.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Fly fishers remember the best of 2022

“Doom scrolling” wasn’t even a thing until 2018, and now Merriam-Webster has selected “gaslighting” as the 2022 word of the year. But good news, many times, is hiding just beneath the surface, in the same way that final swing on an exhausting steelie trip can bring you the best fish of the day. So, what better time to read some environmental success stories from folks who love to fish and know a healthy environment is key. Good news is the best antidote to the bottomless bummer.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

William Preston Bowling, President, South Coast Chapter of Trout Unlimited

Chapter board members Karen Barnett and Bob Blankenship partnered with the City of Paramount to design a fish passage in the Lower Los Angeles River. The river goes through several different municipalities, like Compton, Long Beach, Linwood and the City of Paramount has created an exemplary storm drain system from the neighborhood storm water run off through a bioswale in Dills Park. Barnett and Blankenship thought this would be a great place to focus and create an in-channel native plant area with rocks and sandy areas for the fish to relax. The focus area is right below another “River City”… South Gate. This is where Frank Gehry plans to make some sort of riverside park with a ferris wheel. We imagine this to be steel and concrete as a nod to his past creations and just south of it at Dills Park is just the opposite. Taking the concrete sections back to nature with public access to enjoy these areas in hope that one day all the River Cities can do the same, so the elusive Steelhead Trout will return to this urban river as it once did, prior to the 1940s. Check out Bob and Karen’s great work.

Kesley Gallagher

16-time IGFA record holder, 2018 Ladies Tarpon Fly Champion

CalTrout made significant headway this year on the Rindge Dam Project (Malibu Creek); it will be moving into the Engineering and Design phase in 2023. Public Outreach by CalTrout in the LA area has been a focus to increase awareness of the Rindge Dam project and other initiatives this year; also, in 2023, CalTrout will be heading up a West Fork clean-up day in partnership with the Volunteer Fisheries Restoration Crew, Pasadena Casting Club and Patagonia Pasadena; details will be forthcoming.

©Barbara Evripidou/FirstAvenuePhotography.com

Ben Jailler

Author of Fish Camp Fail

Mention the LA River and I think “Them,” “Point Blank,” “Terminator 2” and “Grease.” With the UK’s privatized water companies discharging 2.7 million hours of untreated sewage into our waterways last year, mention any river in England and I think “Richard III.”

More in hope than expectation, two of my fishing mates, Pete and Jon, set-out to explore the Bristol Avon’s urban tributaries in search of wild brown trout and recording a podcast about their adventures. The result was the Fishtolian and it was incredibly inspiring  listening to their enthusiasm for all things wild and showing that, like in LA, life still thrives among the Asdal trolleys, White Lightning cans and floaters.

Glenn Ueda

Unquestionably, Southern California’s own Yvon Chouinard’s decision to shift  Patagonia’s ownership to Mother Earth, to combat our climate crisis, is undoubtedly the most significant. I value my affiliation with global leader Orvis, as their significant 5% pre-tax donations continue to fund outdoor-improving projects throughout the globe.

From our local watersheds to the most remote South Pacific atolls, we are one world, and need to endeavor to do our part to make a difference. What will you do today to make our world a better place for our grandchildren?

Bernard Yin

Par Avion, and several decades of chasing SoCal trout

– The recent progress on the Klamath River to bring down several dams is truly exciting, refreshing and encouraging. For years we have heard this conversation through the ether and I am sure like many, it’s been hard to think that there was any hope. It looks like the only hurdles remaining are logistics. In other words, the paperwork and the bureaucracy has achieved certain hurdles that were never thought possible. If this can be done on a river as large as the Klamath, when would like to think steps can be taken on smaller drainages; especially when derelict dams are concerned. 

– On a more “local” level, I wish to call attention CalTrout and their efforts, in general terms, to improve the passage between the ocean and the upper reaches of a given watershed. In Southern California, steps continue to be taken on the Ventura drainage, the Malibu Creek drainage, and the Trabuco creek drainage. When I say steps, this can be defined in a variety of ways so it might be best to visit their website to get into the nitty-gritty details but they are serious. Serious in a good way. and making progress.

– I would like to share a more personal anecdote but something that I think would serve as a word of encouragement to anyone who sees anything that is not going well for fish or a water system. A few years ago I noticed that a freshly implemented fish ladder was falling a little short of its intended purpose, because as trout tried to navigate a certain elbow in the ladder (180 degree bend) they would actually miss the ladder and strand themselves on dry ground. Vultures and other birds would hang about during the migratory seasons to take advantage of this. Upon observing this, my wife, Rebecca, and I did our best to document it and reported it to the necessary agencies. Fast forward about a year and some change, baffles were implemented to prevent the fish from jumping out. According to the Department of Fish and Wildlife representative with whom we’ve had good communication, our feedback was considered very helpful bordering on instrumental in creating this fix. We’re not trying to take all the credit for it and we kind of don’t care … . As long as we save a few fish from turning into vulture food! The takeaway is that we all need to speak up. We all need to provide feedback. We need to inform each other and various agencies; alert the world around us to issues that, who knows, might be fixable!

Derek Berlin

Public Engagement Specialist, CalTrout

Two conservation wins that stand out for me, among many others, in 2022 include the progress on Klamath Dam removals, and the international agreement to protect 30% of earths lands and waters in order to preserve the planets biodiversity.

The Klamath dams removal project overcame its last major hurdle in November of this year, with work anticipated to begin in early 2023. The project stands as an incredible example of stakeholders and communities coming together to achieve a difficult common goal. Removing four dams on the Klamath is a critical step toward repairing historic degradations and reestablishing an essential salmon run that once numbered in the millions.

The global agreement to set aside lands and waters to preserve earth’s biodiversity represents perhaps the most ambitious effort ever to curb the unprecedented decline in global biodiversity we are seeing today as a result of human activities. Recognizing the important role of preserving and restoring connected habitat and wild spaces, the agreement formally united about 190 countries in pursuing the target of protecting 30% of earths land and waters by 2030 (30×30) and lays out what the negotiators declare will be concrete benchmarks by which to evaluate progress, as well as funding mechanism pathways. While it’s far from a guarantee that lands and waters will be protected or biodiversity loss curtailed, it is a necessary if not sufficient step forward on a global scale. Both the President Biden and Gov. Newsom administrations have set out similar targets and outcomes in the United States and California, respectively, with their own 30×30 Executive Orders.

Debbie Sharpton

Conservation Director, Southwest Council FFF

— Getting 1,200 acres, the largest parcel left in the Santa Monica Mountains with two miles of ocean frontage, under contract and destined for National Park Service. What a win!

— Seeing the monarch butterfly habitat restoration and collaborations blossom with an increase in the population!

— Seeing the Rindge Dam on Malibu Creek planning and permitting going forward!

– -Seeing endangered species return to historic habitat!–

— Seeing many agencies and NGOs working together to make a difference. 

It’s all very heartwarming.

Al Q

Author, “The Corbina Diaries”

I think the best conservation win is what’s going on in my backyard at Ballona Creek outflow by Marina del Rey.

The intercepter007 is an amazing piece of technology that is sitting in the creek with floating booms, that has been collecting and eating all the garbage and plastic floating out to Santa Monica Bay!

Luis Rincon

Community Engagement Coordinator, California State Parks

Rio de Los Angeles is a good example of how restoration works. This newish park sits in the middle of an industrial zone and residential area in Glassell Park, close to the eastern banks of the Los Angeles River. For 60-plus years, the site was known as Taylor Yard, one of the region’s largest railroad switching yards. When it closed in 1985, community groups pushed to turn the land into a park instead of more industrial space. Partnerships were formed between state and city, and Rio de Los Angeles State Park opened in 2007 with city-supervised playgrounds and athletic fields and state-managed hiking trails with native trees and shrubs. 

When the drought dried up irrigation water on the trails, volunteers used buckets and wheelbarrows to keep new plants alive until they were established enough to go without regular water. This lead to more birds and creatures who find shelter and food in the natural areas, including the endangered least Bell’s vireo, a small river dwelling bird in decline. 

Restoration work is more than rebuilding the land and creating habitat. You’re also restoring a piece of nature for people, to step out of their urban environment, just by crossing the street. This park is a gateway. We want them to be inspired by what they see here, so they go further to see places like Sequoia or Yosemite.

Using fire to fight fire

According to the Angeles National Forest Service, controlled fires in the Big Pines area of the Angeles National Forest have ended for the week. A total of 75 acres of fuel (brush piles) were burned in an effort to help reduce future risk of wildfires. (Credit: US Forest Service)

‘Rewilding’ efforts emerge in major cities worldwide

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From the Associated Press: Rewilding generally means reviving natural systems in degraded locations — sometimes with a helping hand. That might mean removing dams, building tunnels to reconnect migration pathways severed by roads, or reintroducing predators such as wolves to help balance ecosystems. But after initial assists, there’s little human involvement.

The idea might seem best suited to remote areas where nature is freer to heal without interference. But rewilding also happens in some of the world’s biggest urban centers, as people find mutually beneficial ways to coexist with nature.

Treating urban rivers like natural waters instead of drainage ditches can boost fish passage and let adjacent lands absorb floodwaters as global warming brings more extreme weather. READ MORE

Which books make your 2022 Top 10 list?

Dear River Enthusiasts,

As year-end approaches, many have asked us once again about recommended river-related books and documentary films that may be available over the upcoming holiday season. While it is difficult to produce an all inclusive list, there are a number of them that have been included multiple times in various Top 10 lists. So starting with books, here’s a sampling for all ages, followed by some film suggestions.

Recent Books:

  • Reading the Water; Fly-fishing, fatherhood and finding strength in Nature by Mark Hume – 

A father shares the joys of fly-fishing with his daughters. In this eloquent memoir, the author vividly conveys the details of their adventures and the stunning surroundings;

  • The Little Creek that Could; the story of a stream that came back to life by Mark Angelo –

This acclaimed, best-selling illustrated children’s book tells the true, inspirational story of a 50-year effort to reclaim a local stream, and how nature can heal itself, if only we give it a chance – a wonderful and hopeful message for kids!

  • Rivers Run Through Us; A Natural and Human History of Great Rivers of North America by Eric Taylor  

This is an engaging, informative, and personal exploration of some of the great rivers of North America and highlights the fact that every river has a great story to tell.

  • A River’s Gifts; the Mighty Elwha Reborn by Patricia Newman –

This beautiful children’s book tells how the Lower Elwha Klallum Tribe, known as the Strong People, successively fought to restore the Elwha river and their way of life.

  • River of the Gods; Genius, Courage and Betrayal in the search for the source of the Amazon by Candice Millard –

A harrowing story of one of the great feats of exploration and its complicated legacy.

  • I Talk Like a River by Jordon Scott –

Another impactful and award winning children’s book. When a boy who stutters feels isolated, alone, and incapable of communicating in the way he’d like, it takes a kind father and a walk by the river to help him find his voice.

It’s also worthwhile re-visiting some of the river classics from past years, which include; 

  • Magdalena; River of Dreams by Wade Davis – 
  • The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko – 
  • The River Why by David James Duncan – 
  • A River Runs Through It by Norman Mclean – 
  • Highland River by Neil M Gunn – 
  • Running the Amazon by Joe Kane from back in 1989 remains a great adventure. –
  • Rod Haig Brown’s classic, A River Never Sleeps as well as
  • Where Rivers Run: A 6,000-Mile Exploration of Canada by Canoe by Joanie and Gary McGuffin are great reads. – 
  • Robert Collins’ The Nile is an excellent and informative book. – 
  • Blue River, Black Sea; a journey along the Danube into the heart of New Europe by Andrew Eames chronicles an incredible journey while providing a sparkling history of south-eastern Europe. –
  • For a white knuckle ride, Hell or High Water: surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River is as good as it gets,
  • while How to Think Like a Fish by Jeremy Wade is perfect for any fishing aficionado –
  • Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat remains an excellent guide for any serious Thames River pilgrim! –
  • And for those with an interest “down-under,” the book, Rivers: The Lifeblood of Australia, by Ian Hoskins is filled with amazing images and a wealth of information. 

Film – River Documentaries
Here are nine good suggestions from the many excellent river documentaries of the last decade:

  • River (2021); narrated by William Defoe, a cinematic and musical odyssey exploring the relationship between humans and rivers.
  • Riverblue (2017) – the international award-winning film chronicles river conservationist and paddler Mark Angelo’s unprecedented 3 year around-the-world journey by river that uncovered the enormity of fashion-related pollution and its impact on waterways.
  • Chasing Ice (2012) – the ground breaking film documenting the efforts of nature photographer James Balog to publicize the impacts of climate change. It remains every bit as relevant today!
  • The Territory (2022) – from National Geographic Documentary Films (now in theatres, but available soon for streaming), this stunning and thought provoking film focuses on the Uru-eu-wau-wau, an Amazonian tribe only contacted by the Brazilian government in 1980 and who are now fighting to protect their rivers and lands
  • Into the Okavango (2016) – the film chronicles an epic, and often harrowing, four-month, 1,500-mile expedition across three countries to save the river system that feeds the Okavango Delta.
  • The Memory of Fish (2016) – a wonderful documentary portrait of one man, Dick Goin, the wild salmon he loves, and his fight to free a river from dams that had long outlived their usefulness.
  • Last Paddle (2021), the award winning, visually stunning film that delves into Mark Angelo’s lifelong passion for rivers as he documents global river conservation issues as well as restoration successes.
  • The River Runner (2021), a thrilling and adventurous film documenting Scott Lindgren’s 20-year quest to become the very first to paddle all 4 of the great rivers that run off Mt. Kailash in Tibet.
  • Blue Heart (2019) – from Patagonia Films, this centers on the Balkan Peninsula, home to the last wild rivers in Europe. But a deluge of more than 3,000 proposed hydropower developments threaten to destroy the culture and ecology of this sometimes forgotten region.

There are clearly many other great books and films that could be mentioned.
Happy reading, and/or streaming, over the season and we’ll touch base again as World Rivers Day 2023 nears, set for Sunday, Sept. 24.

With very best wishes,
Tunde Murphy, World Rivers Day