Trickle of Hope : Science, Conservation and the Law May Stem Decline of the Ventura River, Once Legendary for Its Trout

Times Staff Writer

Long gone are the days when hotels reserved entire floors for out-of-town fishermen tempted by the thousands of steelhead that could be seen splashing in the Ventura River.

So, too, has passed the time when a tourist guide could gush, as one did in 1911, that "a fine stream flows into the ocean at the west end of the city, and from May to October the breakfast tables of Ventura need never go troutless."

Since the 1950s, dams, diversions, mining and pollution have battered the once-bountiful river, from its convergence with Matilija Creek 16 miles north to the brackish lagoon at its mouth near the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

Left in between are countless stretches of parched stone, bulldozer-scarred banks and no more than 100 of the legendary seagoing steelhead trout.

Yet a growing wave of interest in the river is beginning to stem that tide of decay.

The first part of an ambitious four-year study of the lower river and tidal estuary being conducted by the University of California, Santa Barbara, is expected to be completed this summer. Researchers hope that the report, which is the first attempt to analyze plants, soil, and water quality in the area, will eventually persuade state officials to preserve the river's mouth as a wildlife refuge.

In addition, environmental groups are rallying to challenge a sand and gravel company's application to continue mining from 50,000 to 250,000 tons annually from the river bed about 1 1/2 miles upstream. Last week, those groups expressed their concerns in a meeting with Ventura County planning officials, who will require the Southern Pacific Milling Co. to undergo an environmental review later this year.

Hopes for the river were also buoyed last summer when the California Supreme Court rejected a proposed agreement between Ventura and the Casitas Municipal Water District to divert part of the stream as reserve for use in a drought. The court ruled that, even though officials had vowed to limit any ecological damage, the loss of water would probably decimate the few remaining trout.

"I think the most important thing is to pass on to the public that this isn't just a stagnant puddle of water with no value," said Wayne R. Ferren Jr., curator of the UCSB Herbarium and coordinator of the university's study. "A lot of people don't realize that they have a gem in their back yard."

Of course, for people accustomed to seeing rushing water in their rivers, the Ventura might seem more like a lump of coal. Low stream flow, exacerbated by three years of drought, makes walking long stretches of the river bed in tennis shoes a real possibility.

The natural beauty is not enhanced by the industrial plants and oil fields that line its banks where the river parallels Ventura Avenue.

High above, in the Ojai Valley, the Matilija Dam, a 152-foot-high concrete monolith built in 1948, holds back the flow that once made the stream the world's second-most-prolific trout habitat, behind the Santa Ynez River in Santa Barbara County.

But for all that, the Ventura River has shown remarkable resiliency. Fed by four mountain creeks, it has still managed to sustain abundant plant and animal life. Idyllic nooks dot the stream's length. And its lower stretches are among only 25% of the state's coastal wetlands that have managed so far to survive 20th-Century development.

In the 200-acre area being studied by UCSB, more than 30 different vegetation types have been identified, including salt marshes, black cottonwood forests, intertidal cobble zones and riparian scrub. At least 230 plant species have been noted, including the California walnut, pickle weed, salt grass and bulrush. About 200 bird species have been spotted, including snowy egrets, Virginia rails, merlins and ruddy turnstones.

Wildflowers bathe the dunes near the ocean in splashes of lavender and yellow. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds stir up a ruckus in the tall reeds. Flowering green duckweed floats on the surface of small tidal pools near the river's mouth.

"If your measure of health is a river loaded with 10-pound fish, then obviously this river is not very healthy," said Mark Capelli, executive director of the 1,700-member Friends of the Ventura River. "But there are a lot of other resources--maybe a bit more subtle--that show the river is still enormously vigorous."

UCSB researchers intend to make those resources more overt. In June, they will deliver a report that state officials paid $4,000 for, cataloguing plant life in the surrounding Emma Wood State Beach wetlands. With other grants, they will publish a final survey in 1990 recommending various methods of restoring and maintaining the ecologically sensitive area.

The project, they hope, will lead to greater appreciation of the lower river and its estuary, as well as to the creation of nature trails, guide books and informational maps.

"There's just nothing indicating to the public the value of the site," Ferren said. "And the more enlightened the public is about our resources, the more protection we'll have for them."

The stream has been lacking protection ever since Sebastian Vizcaino, the Spanish explorer, was invited ashore in the early 17th Century by an old man who urged, he wrote in his journal, that "we must go to his land, where they would give us much food and water, for there was a river."

Vizcaino was followed 100 years later by the Franciscan padres, who founded the San Buenaventura Mission near the mouth of the river in 1782 and soon began diverting drinking water with the help of a six-mile-long wooden aqueduct.

Additional Trauma

The river, which for thousands of years had sustained the Chumash Indians, suffered another blow when oil was discovered at the west end of the city in 1916. For years, during the first heavy rain of the season, the oil companies used the waters to rinse their holding ponds of drilling-mud and brine.

Still, through World War II, the Ventura River supported a substantial steelhead population, estimated to have been as high as 4,000 or 5,000 fish. A 1911 newspaper reported a hefty trout caught by one George Pacheco that measured three feet and weighed 14 pounds. Fishermen, who competed in annual contests sponsored by sporting goods stores, lined up by the hundreds for the season's opening day.

It wasn't until the Matilija Dam was built 40 years ago to reduce flood hazards and provide additional water for neighboring communities that the trout stock began to disappear. The Casitas Dam, built in 1959 about 6 1/2 miles from the river's mouth, sounded the death knell.

Since then, more environmental hazards have been faced, including the Oak View Sanitation District's sewage facility, which discharges treated effluent about 4 1/2 miles above the river's mouth; a now-defunct Shell Oil Co. chemical plant, which was found guilty of dumping ammonia in the river in 1972; and Southern Pacific Milling Co., which began its mining operation in the river bed and surrounding flood plain in 1961.

"The Ventura River represents, one way or another, just about everything man can do to degrade a natural environment," said Charlie Price, president of Friends of the Ventura River and a former county Fish and Game Commissioner. "It's been a steady, long-term deterioration."

Helped by Court

Lately, however, the river has begun winning its battles. Perhaps the most significant was the ruling last August by the state Supreme Court upholding an Appellate Court decision that blocked a proposed diversion of the stream.

Water-pinched Ventura had sought to protect itself from drought by allowing the Casitas Municipal Water District to divert more water than it normally does from facilities upstream. In return, Ventura, which itself extracts about 6,000 acre-feet a year, or about 25% of its total water supply, would be guaranteed that amount by Casitas even in dry years.

The city and Casitas pledged to carefully monitor the arrangement and "take appropriate measures" if significant environmental problems were to arise. They also agreed to maintain a minimum stream flow of one cubic foot per second in the 1.5-mile "Live Stretch," a leg of the river above Foster Park that is one of the few segments that enjoys year-round flow.

But Friends of the Ventura River, contending that the plan would decimate the few trout that remain in the stream, filed suit in 1984 against the city and water district. In a harshly worded June, 1988, ruling, the Second Appellate Court agreed:

'Wishful Thinking'

"The record reveals that it is mere wishful thinking that a one cubic-foot-per-second flow, coupled with monitoring and a vague promise to intercede if disaster strikes, would substantially lessen the impending peril that faces the steelhead under this agreement."

Of course, without substantially increased stream flows, it would also be wishful thinking to assume that more than 100 trout will ever manage to survive in the river. As long as water remains scarce, say environmentalists, it will be difficult to persuade officials to release the necessary quantities to support more fish.

But if the river can just avoid additional setbacks, they say, there is hope that it can still be returned to a far more vital stream. Drawing from a watershed that drains 228 square miles, much of it wilderness, the river, if given a chance, will always be able to rejuvenate.

"That's why I've never lost faith," said Capelli, executive director of Friends of the Ventura River. "All you have to do is leave it alone for a while, and it will restore itself. Mother Nature doesn't give up very easily."

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