Fish Foul--Up : County, State Officials Dispute Blame for Deaths in San Gabriel Reservoir

Times Staff Writer

An apparent communications breakdown between the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and the state Fish and Game Department has resulted in destruction in the last three months of thousands of trout and native non-game fish in San Gabriel Reservoir north of Azusa and Big Tujunga Creek north of Sunland.

In both cases, the fish kills occurred after the Department of Public Works (DPW), which manages large portions of the San Gabriel River and Big Tujunga Creek for flood control purposes, lowered water levels in the San Gabriel and Big Tujunga reservoirs to perform maintainence work on the dams.

Fish and game biologists say that lowering the water level of the San Gabriel Reservoir and the cutoff of water from Big Tujunga Reservoir to Big Tujunga Creek caused fish to suffocate or succumb to infections because they could not withstand the reduced levels of oxygen and higher water temperatures that resulted from lower water levels.

The problem came to light after game wardens reported dead fish in the San Gabriel Reservoir. Biologists reported to their superiors in the Fish and Game Department in May that more than 200 rainbow trout had floated to the surface of the San Gabriel Reservoir. Fish and game wardens had planted 8,500 trout in the reservoir just seven days before the DPW began to lower the dam's water level, greatly increasing the number of fish that would eventually die.

Full Damage Unknown

Although the biologists say the full extent of the damage cannot be determined because not all dead fish float to the surface, thousands of native and stocked fish are believed to have perished in the reservoir's oxygen-depleted water.

In Big Tujunga Creek, carcasses of thousands of three minnow-sized native species of fish are still visible, their shiny, pulpy bodies decomposing in the shallow creek's moss-filled water. Sightings of dead trout planted in the creek were reported earlier last month, fish and game authorities say.

In an attempt to clarify the events surrounding the fish kills and to keep channels of communication open, Brad Nurembrug, a fish and game commissioner for Los Angeles County, has invited state fish and game and DPW officials, as well as representatives from two sport fishing clubs, to a meeting on Friday. Club spokesmen and officials for both agencies say they will send representatives to the meeting.

Barrett McInerney, vice president of California Trout Inc., one of the sport fishing organizations, said that the fish kills are not just the result of a communications breakdown but the failure of the state Fish and Game Department to aggressively protect the fisheries of Region 5, California's largest and most populous wildlife management area. Region 5 encompasses nine Central and Southern California counties stretching from Mono, Inyo, Santa Barbara and San Bernardino counties to the Mexican border.

Didn't Grasp Severity

Fred A. Worthley, state Fish and Game Department manager for Region 5, would not respond to McInerney's claims but did acknowledge that he is at least partly responsible for the San Gabriel Reservoir fish kill. "From our perspective," Worthley said, "we didn't understand the severity of" the results of lowering the reservoir's water level.

He also said there were delays in communications with his staff. "Sometimes it may take time for something to get to me. In San Gabriel and Big Tujunga there was a time lapse before I understood what was going on."

Roslyn Robson, a Department of Public Works spokeswoman, said the county agency gave the Fish and Game Department four days' notice in April of its plan to release 7,122 acre-feet of water from the reservoir so that county crews could repair a valve and other dam structures. Fish and game officials estimate that by mid-May, 99% of the reservoir's water had been released.

Despite Worthley's contention that he did not fully understand the impact of lowering the dam's water level, David Drake, a fish and game fisheries biologist, said in a July 8 memorandum to one of his supervisors that he had warned fish and game officials that lowering the water level that much could kill large numbers of fish. He said in the memorandum that the agency could have stopped the DPW by demanding a stream-bed alteration agreement or an environmental impact report before the dam's water level could be lowered.

Request Rejected

Robson said fish and game officials did make the requests recommended by Drake but that DPW officials turned them down because they did not think the reports were required for conducting routine maintenance work. Robson said Worthley queried the DPW about the plans but did not demand that the release of water be halted.

Worthley would not comment on Drake's memorandum, except to say that better communications between the agencies are needed to prevent future fish kills.

In the Big Tujunga Creek fish kill, however, Worthley said the Fish and Game Department was caught by surprise by the DPW's decision to lower the water level of the dam, threatening the fish downstream.

Although the DPW had notified fish and game officials in mid-May of its plan to drain the dam to perform maintainence, fish and game officials contend that the DPW did not tell them exactly which day it would cut off the flow of water from Big Tujunga Reservoir to Big Tujunga Creek.

Warning About Damage

By June 3, fish and game officials had learned that the DPW had started lowering the dam's water level and was preparing to open the reservoir's sluice gate to complete its draining operation.

Keith Anderson, fisheries management supervisor for Region 5, said his department warned the DPW that it would have to apply for a stream alteration agreement before opening the sluice gate. Anderson said the Fish and Game Department was concerned that opening the gate would release tons of silt and sand into the creek, potentially repeating on a smaller scale destruction of the West Fork of the San Gabriel River that occurred when the DPW opened the sluice gate of Cogswell Dam in 1981.

The operation released 200,00 cubic yards of silt into the West Fork and destroyed a seven-mile stretch of wild trout habitat downstream from Cogswell Reservoir, which led the Fish and Game Department to file a $2 million suit against the DPW.

The DPW halted any further release of water from Big Tujunga Reservoir after fish and game officials requested a stream alteration agreement, Anderson said. Don Nichols, a DPW water conservation engineer, said he was not sure why the county agency halted its release of water but said that the DPW had no intention of sluicing silt and sand into Big Tujunga Creek. Nichols said the dam's water level has increased from 603 acre-feet on June 3 to about 822 acre-feet at present.

Report of Dying Fish

On June 24, Fish and Game Department officials received their first report that most of the 800 trout planted in the Big Tujunga Creek in May and thousands of native fish were dying.

Robson said that the DPW did not need to inform fish and game officials of the exact day it planned to lower the dam's water level because both agencies knew that the dam would soon run out of water because of a lack of rainfall this year.

Drake disagrees, saying that based on his conversations with the dam operators, the dam still has a sufficient supply of water to maintain the stream through the summer. If water is not released from the dam, he said, fish will continue to die.

"Some simple communication and cooperation could have prevented the two fish kills. We need to make a major effort toward achieving meaningful coordination with the Department of Public Works," wrote Chuck Marshall, associate fish and game fishery biologist, in a June 25 memorandum.

McInerney and Jim Edmondson, president of the Pasadena Casting Club, agree with Marsahll that communications between the agencies must be improved. "The county has to be sensitized to the fact that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction," said McInerney.

Agency 'Afraid'

"But when one agency (Fish and Game) is so afraid of coming out of the office to take a position because the anticipation of conflict causes them to freeze, the results are what we have floating on the surface of Big Tujunga Creek."

Worthley defended his department, saying that it has consistently acted to prevent damage to the region's resources. In the case of Big Tujunga Creek, he said the department can take legal action to prevent further fish kills or sue for damages.

This is not the first time the two agencies have come into conflict. The Fish and Game Department still is attempting to settle out of court its $2-million suit against the DPW for destroying the trout habitat of the West Fork of the San Gabriel River.

McInerney and Edmondson, whose Pasadena Casting Club has played a leading role in helping restore the West Fork, said that attempts by fish and game officials to reach an out-of-court settlement over a five-year period show a failure by the agency to aggressively protect its fishery resources.

Rush Creek Lawsuit

McInerney, an attorney who represents California Trout, said his group filed suit last year against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power after the state Fish and Game Department did not act to preserve the flow in Rush Creek. The Inyo County creek is a habitat for 30,000 wild trout. California Trout won a preliminary injunction in March that requires the DWP to maintain a flow of water to ensure the survival of the fish. The DWP contends that it has an agreement with the Fish and Game Department that allows it to divert water from the creek. Worthley said he would not comment on McInerney's claims while the Rush Creek suit is in litigation.

The real tragedy of the fish kills, said biologist Drake, is not just the temporary loss of a recreational resource. Fish can always be planted, he said. What worries Drake is the gradual degradation of a habitat and what effect this will have in the future.

One predictable effect, he said, is that the destruction of the wild trout population in San Gabriel Reservoir, which have traditionally spawned upstream each spring, has damaged the fishery's ability to naturally replenish itself.

Drake said many of the fish in the San Gabriel Reservoir could have been saved if the DPW had placed an aerator in the water to provide the fish with oxygen. He said some of the fish in Big Tujunga Creek could have been saved if the DPW had delayed draining the dam until a wetter year when there was more water in the creek or earlier or later this year when water temperatures were lower.

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