Why should we all speak up to restore our river’s natural habitat in the face of redevelopment plans that put everything but the endangered southern steelhead first?
Perhaps, because of the recent shrinkage of two treasured national monuments, despite an outcry by millions of concerned outdoorsmen (and women). For an eye-opening read, check out What Would Theodore Roosevelt Do?
Perhaps, because of goverment-mandated cutting of the two most important words of this century — “climate change” — from documents produced by the beleaguered Environmental Protection Agency and other federal authorities.
Perhaps, because of the devastating climate-fueled conflagration we all recently witnessed here in our own city, to our north, to our south and to thousands of acres all over California.
Or, perhaps, because it is simply the right thing to do.
When does the misuse of what we’ve been freely given end? A former wild river now encased in concrete is as good a place as any to take a stand. Today, when I wade the soft-bottomed sections that remain, fly rod in hand, birds overhead, I feel that fragile sense of hope return. Hope begins as a small thing, like a faint cry you can’t quite make out. But, given time, and especially nurtured by like minds and hearts, it grows and spreads. Hope becomes a powerful force.
In these depressing times, we all need sources of inspiration to nurture that hope.
Consider the 1946 masterpiece, “A River Never Sleeps.” Its author Roderick Haig-Brown lays out his best-known book’s chapters by months. January is reserved for steelhead.
The English Haig-Brown included in this chapter drawn from his experiences in a logging camp in Mount Vernon, Washington, his praise for American openness to immigrants because we are a nation of immigrants:
“When I had been in camp only a week or two, a little old Irishman whom we called Frank Skagway showed me the strength and passion with which America grips her immigrants. In the bunkhouse one evening a few of us were talking of Europe and America and the differences of the life of the two continents.
Probably I said my say for Old England — I don’t remember now — but being only two or three months away from her, I must have. Frank had been listening without offering a word, but suddenly he looked over at me, his lined and long-jawed Irish face serious as I had never seen it.
‘Lad,’ he asked, ‘do you know what country this is?’
‘No,’ I said doubtfully.
‘It’s the land of the free and the home of the brave.’ ”
See you on the river, Jim Burns
In an age when the dams are finally coming down, the city of Los Angeles is erecting a new one, if approved by year’s end. Advocates tout this barrier as both temporary and inflatable, instead of fixed and concrete, and its purpose twofold: to create a basin for water to fuel the Annenberg Foundation’s water wheel; and to slow the flow of treated water to the ocean.
I wonder if any have asked those who advocate for the return of steelhead to the Los Angeles River what they thought?
And I wonder, as retired FoLAR luminary Lewis MacAdams was fond of saying, did anyone ask the steelhead? If they are able to ride a winter storm surge from the beach upstream if they’d like to get stuck behind an inflatable, unnecessary dam?
Dams are coming down all over the country. In fact, 72 dams fell last year, according to American Rivers. And when they are blasted back into the dust from which they came, fish return. That list includes Benbow Dam, South Fork Eel River and Old Carmel River Dam, Carmel River, both in California.
Now we read that inflatable dams are a good idea for the LA River because the county has already used them successfully on the San Gabriel River to recharge groundwater. To me, the logic points backward, not forward.
If we want to end up with a restored river instead of a carnival, one that is renewed with native plants, fish and wildlife, one in which children and their parents can enjoy a taste of the actual river environs, instead of concrete, graffiti and drug deals, this leads exactly in the wrong direction.
Ask a San Antonioan how may fish he’s caught in the remade RiverWalk in downtown San Antonio and he will probably tell you how great the jazz clubs along with river are, and how many dining options there are now. And how much real estate value has increased. As one YouTuber put it:
“There’s no signs anywhere saying you can’t fish there, but it’s frowned upon and not many people have tried. I didn’t stick around too long, I was getting dirty looks from the employees of a nearby bar, and I think they called the cops.”
Maybe that’s fine for San Antonio, but I don’t think it’s OK for Los Angeles. After all, our own recreation zones have only been open for legal seasonal fishing for four years.
CalTrout recently released a cry for help because Southern Steelhead, currently endangered, will be extinct, along with many other native fish, within a young person’s lifetime. The advocacy group believes 45 percent of them will be extinct – not endangered, extinct – within 50 years.
So, please take a moment to write Mayor Eric Garcetti and tell him you’d rather give steelhead a chance to return to the San Gabriel Mountains than have an inflatable dam further blocking the way. That you’d rather give our youth a taste of the outdoors in our own communities. That you actually do care about the environment over development. Here is his email:
After all, when the Army Corps eventually begins to tear out the concrete near Atwater Village, the true nature of the river can be coaxed back into the 21st Century. As the water temperatures decrease, the chances of introducing native fish increase.
Using artificial means to increase water levels for a water wheel is wrong headed. In fact, like a hamster wheel, it is circling in exactly the wrong direction.
See you on the river, Jim Burns
The Arroyo Seco Foundation has received a $50,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to determine the best stream conditions for introducing trout, according to the Pasadena Star-News.
Tim Brick, the foundation’s managing director, adds:
“We’re still look for trout, but the stream is below 1 cubic feet per second again. We need to identify the pools and resting spots where the trout are hiding. Probably Bear Canyon is the most likely spot. Anyone care to go on a trout scout adventure?”
His email is email@example.com.
Finally, to get a taste of what fishing used to be like here, I’m rerunning my 2014 review of historian Tom Tomlinson’s excellent book, ““Against the Currents: The Unlikely Story of the Southern California Steelhead” below.
If you think you’ve finished your summer reading list, stop! Consider one more book, please.
“Against the Current, The Unlikely Story of the Southern California Steelhead” could not, in truth, be a more unlikely tale. Author Tom Tomlinson takes the reader on an environmental roller coaster ride that matches our region’s boom-or-bust water supply, and throws in plenty of human Greek drama.
What just over a 100 years ago was a region so pristine that Easterners came here to mend their health, through hunting, fishing and soaking up the sunshine, quickly turned into what we have today. As someone who has lived here for over 30 years with no plans of leaving, I’m not complaining, but when you read this book and realize what it once was — especially if you enjoy fly fishing the San Gabes — well, get our your handkerchief.
One fact to prime the tears: In the early 1900s, the then-equivalent of the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife set the limit of fish taken at … 100. If you’ve ever put boots to dirt and fly to water in our mountains, this should give you a chill. Guests at the local fishing camps regularly hauled in lots of rainbows, and, yes, steelhead. And they hauled, and they hauled and they hauled. Think buffalo in the plains states.
How we got from those abundant fishy beginnings to where we are today is a story of good intentions gone to greed, it’s about that simple.
As for the steelhead once again taking center stage as we enter the Great Los Angeles River Rebuilding, well, this magnificent creature needs our help to get off the endangered species list.
When Congress approves the billion bucks for a river makeover early next year (Update: As of this writing three years later, the federal money hasn’t arrived), I hope every politician, every engineer and every investor gets a copy of this book. They should look up the section on one Henry O’Melveny, lawyer, fishing advocate, Creel Club founder, ice plant owner and, sadly, leader of the pack that done the natural inhabitants of our erratic rivers and streams in. Indeed, he is a figure as defining of Greek tragedy as Oedipus or Agamemnon.
Fast forward to today, and a mayor who is bringing in major bucks from Washington for the river as well as public transportation. I hope that Mayor Eric Garcetti reads this slim volume. It is the most compelling work to date on why the natural habitat can’t take a backseat to our own urban comfort zone. That story already happened.
See you on the river, Jim Burns
Chief, Planning Division
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles District
ATTN: Mr. Jesse Ray (CESPL-PDR-L)
915 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 930
Los Angeles, California 90017
By Rosi Dagit
She was lying on her back on the bottom of a pool, pushed by the flow against a rock. Bruised, scales falling off, scrapes all over her body, she was barely breathing. Gently holding her face into the flow, she gasped for air and hung limply in my hands. I could feel her muscles twitch and contract, but she could not swim at all. When I let her go, she sank to the bottom on her back and rolled with the flow on her side, up against my feet, unable to orient herself.
At 23 inches, she was a full-grown anadromous steelhead that had fought her way upstream against the current in search of a place to spawn. The creek was wondrous after all the winter storms, with steady flows cascading over rocks, providing a background music calling her upstream to find a good place to lay her eggs.
For several minutes we stood and discussed what to do. She was clearly not going to recover and survive, but she was not quite dead yet. It was just heartbreaking to think of losing this fish, one of only four anadromous adults known to have returned to the creeks so far this year in all of Southern California.
What went wrong? How did she get so banged up? Was the flow too strong? Was she too old and tired, having waited too many years for the rains to come?
She died in my hands. I brought her battered body back to teach us and help us learn to tell her story. Her scales will tell us her age. Her DNA will give us insight into her ancestry. She was not one of our tagged fish, but from somewhere else. Only 18 eggs, an empty stomach. The promise of the future for southern steelhead took a big loss today.
Rosi Dagit is a Senior Conservation Biologist for the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Editor’s Note: Dagit and the RCDSMM have permits to monitor and handle these endangered fish. Only permitted biologists are allowed to handle them. There is a substantial fine per fish (around $25,000) for harassment or taking one from the water, if not permitted.
This story from the Ventura County Star has gone viral in the last several days, according to Pasadena Casting Club’s John Tobin. As the club’s conservation editor and an enthusiastic environmentalist, he was excited by the sighting of this endangered species, adding, “this could be the L.A. River!”
I share his sentiment and hope that the push to develop the river doesn’t leave out the most important part — a return of Southern California Coast Steelhead.
Of course, after years of drought, spotting a southern steelhead in a creek at Leo Carrillo State Park is a reason for everyone to cheer. Gone are the days of steelhead runs, when an entire industry sprang up to cater to fishermen who traveled to witness and catch these magnificent fish as they made their way from the ocean to their spawning grounds in our local mountains.
“It was so exciting to find an actual steelhead, as they are rare as hens teeth this year,” said Rosi Dagit, team leader and senior conservation biologist for Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, by email. “Only four anadromous adults have been documented thus far, and one died in my hands in Malibu on Wednesday. A lot of future hopes are with this lovely fish and we wish her many babies to help recover the population!”
See you on the river, Jim Burns