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San Gabriel Trout Spawn Ruined in Dam Test

Times Staff Writer

It took only 70 minutes to seriously set back a three-year effort to restore the wild trout habitat of the West Fork of the San Gabriel River when valves at the Cogswell Dam were tested last month, according to state officials and sport fishermen.

A “wall of water” released by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works as part of the tests crushed thousands of trout eggs, washed away gravel beds used by the fish for spawning, and killed or dispersed insects needed by the fish for survival, officials from the state Fish and Game Department said.

“I believe that all of this year’s spawn was lost,” David Drake, a fisheries biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game, wrote in a report he drafted two days after he witnessed the March 19 tests.

Organization of Anglers

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“I’m very discouraged,” said Bill Gerlach, conservation chairman for the San Gabriel Valley Fly Fishers, a 70-member organization of anglers that helped restore the West Fork after its wild trout habitat was accidentally destroyed by the Department of Public Works in 1981. “A lot of people have worked very hard to bring back (the West Fork). It appears that everything was in vain.”

But department officials say the tests were needed to ensure that the dam can provide water conservation and flood control.

“There are some sacrifices that have to be made,” said Jim Easton, a top-level DPW administrator in charge of dam operations. “But we cannot perform miracles. We cannot stop doing adequate maintenance of our facilities because of alleged damage to the environment downstream. If the dams weren’t there, the damages would be hundreds of times greater because we could not regulate (water) flows.”

The tests have further aggravated relations between the DPW and the Department of Fish and Game. They have also heightened distrust environmentalists said they have for the DPW.

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‘Political Damage’

“The political damages far exceed the biological ones,” said Jim Edmondson, conservation chairman of the Pasadena Casting Club and an officer in several state and national environmental groups.

“The county has taken something they have crippled and kicked it while it was down,” Edmondson said.

The leaders of as many as 23 local angling and environmental organizations have scheduled a meeting next month to decided how to respond to the DPW action, Edmondson said.

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The DPW should have gotten approval from his agency before proceeding with the tests, said Bob Fletcher, deputy director of Fish and Game and the agency’s second in command.

“On the surface, it looks as if they overstepped their bounds,” Fletcher said. “I don’t hold out a tremendous amount of hope other than seeking an answer through litigation.”

Called Routine Maintenance

Easton countered that the test was a routine maintenance operation. “We don’t need any authorization or approval from Fish and Game to do that,” he said.

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The two agencies have long been at odds over the West Fork.

Fish and Game filed a $2-million suit against the Los Angeles County Flood Control District (now a DPW subdivision) after the district accidentally released water carrying tons of silt into the West Fork during 1981 repairs to the Cogswell Dam north of Azusa. About 200,000 cubic yards of silt from a reservoir behind the dam destroyed the seven-mile-long habitat for an estimated 24,000 trout, killing or displacing thousands of fish, according to Fish and Game officials.

Fish and Game records indicate that the trout population in the West Fork, which once provided the best fly fishing close to the Los Angeles area, had dropped to 8,000 before the tests. Because of the tests last month, Fish and Game has asked the state attorney general’s office to suspend negotiations over settlement of the $2-million suit.

Edmondson had rallied the Pasadena Casting Club behind the three-year restoration project in the West Fork that depended upon hundreds of volunteers working in cooperation with county, state and federal agencies. Native weeds, grasses and about 1,100 willows and alders were transplanted and tons of gravel were hauled in to reconstruct vital spawning areas.

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No Adult Fish Harmed

Nearly all of the 300 to 400 tons of gravel placed in the stream by the volunteers was washed away by the water released during the March tests, Drake said in his report. He and U.S. Forest Service biologists said that apparently no adult fish were harmed in the tests. The Forest Service biologist said in his report that some trout may die later because of gill abrasion caused by the silt released in the stream.

Both biologists said that displacement of the gravel destroyed breeding areas for the trout and killed or displaced thousands of aquatic insects the fish rely for food. In addition, Drake and Edmondson said that destruction of the trout habitat has also robbed mammals and birds of a key food source.

DPW officials said the tests had originally been scheduled for Feb. 19, but were delayed because of heavy rains and the illness of an engineer.

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Valves must be tested at least once a year to ensure that they work properly, Easton said. Chuck Marshall, head fisheries biologist for Fish and Game in Region 5, which covers all of Southern California, said that he was notified by the DPW that tests would be conducted in February.

When the DPW notified him of the one-month delay, Marshall said he expressed his concern to the agency that the delay might result in a greater loss because the tests would come at the end of the peak spawning period, which ends about March 15.

Cancellation Not Requested

But Easton, the assistant director of the DPW’s public works division, said that neither Marshall nor any other Fish and Game officials asked that the tests be canceled.

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“Frankly, I don’t understand” their response now, said Easton. “They are in the business of evaluating what we are doing. We are not in the fish business, that’s exactly why we communicate to them what we plan to do.”

Fred Worthley, Fish and Game’s manager for Region 5, said that given the controversy surrounding the West Fork and Marshall’s concerns, the DPW should have consulted further with his agency before proceeding with the test.

Local Fish and Game officials have come under harsh criticism from Drake and angling groups for not acting aggressively enough to try to halt the tests.

“Reflecting back to when I was watching the wall of mud pass by,” wrote Drake in his report, “it occurred to me that in a very short time, I watched the efforts of hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours of work being flushed away by an act that was preventable, but was allowed by the (Fish and Game) Department for whatever reason.

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‘Latest in a Series’

“This lack of responsibility to protect the resource is the latest in a series of events that has led to the loss and/or destruction of valuable habitat in Southern California.”

Drake could not be reached for comment but his report was made available to The Times. Worthley would not respond to Drake’s criticism of Fish and Game.

However, Fletcher, the deputy Fish and Game director, said he could understand Drake’s frustrations and those of other employees like him, whom he described as “extremely dedicated.”

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Drake said in his report to his superiors that water was released for about 70 minutes. Water flow in the stream rose from 108 cubic feet per second before the tests to as much as 2,100 cubic feet per second at the height of the operation, Drake said.

Within minutes of when the first valve was opened, Drake wrote in his report, “the first wall of water” rushed down the stream, carrying broken tree limbs, uprooted shrubs and tree trunks. He noted that the water, which he described as “a thick brown soup,” gave off a strong odor of hydrogen sulfide gas, which is “usually associated with the decay of organic matter” deposited at the bottom of the reservoir.

Insects Stranded

“Up and down the stream,” his report said, aquatic insects “could be found stranded out of the water. In other areas, insects normally found in fast water could be seen struggling in isolated overflow pools and backwaters.” The report said that a layer of sediment up to one-third of an inch thick was deposited throughout the stream.

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The day after the test, adult trout had returned to two former spawning areas in the West Fork, Drake reported. But, he added, there was no gravel in which they could spawn.

Before the tests, Edmondson said he and a professional surveyor measured elevations on the river bottom in two locations. The measurements were taken again after the tests, he said, and showed that the gravel in the spawning area nearest the dam was almost completely gone. There were also significant loses of gravel two miles downstream, he said.

Drake, Forest Service wildlife biologist Bill Brown and Richard Hafele, an entomologist hired by the Pasadena Casting Club, took water samples and temperatures, photographs and insect samples before and after the tests.

Eggs Had Been Killed

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Their data showed that the eggs had been killed, gravel had been washed away and that insect life in the stream had been severly damaged, they said.

Drake said in his report that because the tests significantly altered the West Fork’s stream bed, the DPW should have obtained a permit from the state Water Quality Resources Control Board.

Easton disagreed. “When we do something that definitely modifies a stream we do apply for such a permit,” he said.

“But the mere fact that we released a couple of thousand feet per second of water is not a stream bed alteration.” Such releases are normal during the rainy season to lessen flood danger, he said.

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Not Adjusted to Needs

Such a response, said Barrett McInerney, Southern California vice president of California Trout, a statewide conservation group that seeks to protect trout streams, shows that the DPW has not adjusted to environmental needs of the 1970s and 1980s.

“I’m convinced, with the quality of engineers working with the county, (that) it would be very simple to come up with operational procedures that can compensate for the damages (to the West Fork) immediately after they happen,” he said.

McInerney said that the DPW should provide the $30,000 he thinks it will take to restock the stream with wild strains of trout and replace the damaged spawning areas.

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DPW officials said the agency should not have to pay for any damage because it is inevitable when such necessary tests occur.

Edmondson said the tests have wide political and environmental ramifications because there are hundreds of dams in the state that must be safely maintained without causing environmental damage.

“Ultimately, this (issue) is going to be dumped on the steps of the (Fish and Game) director in Sacramento,” he said. “Throughout the state, reservoirs continue to fill up with sediments. Additional resources are going to continue to be placed in jeopardy if this issue cannot be resolved.”

Fletcher agreed with Edmondson.

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“I can’t say if the (West Fork) incident will set any precedents, but there are some basic questions raised there that apply to other reservoirs in the state,” said the Fish and Game official.

Edmondson and other fly fishers such as Gerlach said their commitment to the West Fork has not lessened despite what Edmondson termed the “trauma” of seeing years of work washed down the stream.

“Well, frankly, it’s hard for me to express my feelings,” Edmondson said. “I am very disturbed.”


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