UPDATE: “Damnation” is a documentary well worth watching.
I’ve been working on a complicated piece this summer that, frankly, I’ll be happy to send in to the editor next week. It’s about Southern California steelhead. That alone may come as a shock to some readers of this space — not that I’m working on it, but that there actually is such a fish in our Mediterranean clime.
When I think of the mighty steelhead, I envision surging rivers somewhere in the Northwest, and rain-soaked attempts by dogged casters to get a strike, as these powerful giants return from the ocean to spawn in fresh water. Unlike salmon that spawn and die, a steelhead may make more than one trip to the ocean and back to its native waters. Because it covers so many miles, the fish is known as an “umbrella” species, whose health can either augur well or poorly for the rest of us. Steelhead made the Endangered Species List in 1997, and the status was reaffirmed in 2006, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
In pursuit of the truth about the viability of this species here in So. Cal., I’ve spent time with city officials, the Army Corps of Engineers, environmentalists of varied stripes, biologists and just plain everyday folks who love to fish.
All of them agree that one of the literal obstacles to getting steelhead off the list is dams that stop them from returning to their native habitats to spawn. I wanted to see for myself what one of these dams looked like. My wife agreed, and so we walked upstream yesterday in the July heat from Jet Propulsion Laboratory about four miles to Brown Mountain Dam.
Googling any topic can be deceiving, and so it was with our sojourn. No one in Pasadena needs to be reminded of the horrific Station Fire that took firemen’s lives, burned homes and ruined habitat two years ago. From reading, we expected our hike to be grim: lots of lunar landscapes, dead trees and squashed hopes. Not so.
Yes, there were dead trees. And, yes, there were large debris flows along the modest flow of the upper Arroyo Seco, all the way to the dam. But, there were also marvelous live oak canopies, wildflowers, cacti, blooming yuccas, calling birds, annoying insects. The Station Fire was devastating, but it hasn’t robbed us completely of this splendid natural respite.
Fish, however, were another matter. I spent unscientific time tossing rocks into likely holes, and even nymphed riffles and edges for a bit. If there are still fish, they were taking a long nap. This is particularly bad news as native rainbow trout (actually any rainbow trout) under the right conditions can become a steelhead. And there is a lot of work going into various plans to recover this species — in the Los Angeles River watershed.
Back to the dam. You’ve got to ask yourself, why, with the county ready to pour some $32 million into dredging and dumping the area above Devils’ Gate Dam, this little gem goes unnoticed. If I were a good reporter, I would have already asked an engineer how many tons of sediment lie behind Brown Mountain, just waiting to foul the county’s efforts if, God forbid, we have an earthquake of sufficient magnitude to bring the thing down.
Walking around its structure made me wonder aloud if the idea behind this dam was to slow the notoriously fast flow of winter storm water down the canyon. From my layman’s perspective, it’s a long way down those four miles to the flood plain alongside JPL. Couldn’t we allow it to return to its original state?
If nothing else, a walk up the Arroyo Seco should cure anyone of doubts about removing our channelized monstrosity of flood control to return our streams and rivers to the way they were.
See you on the river, Jim Burns