THE OUTDOORS : Giving Fish a Lift on Revival Road : Malibu Creek's Steelheads Could Be Saved by Allowing Migration Past Rindge Dam

Times Staff Writer

"Swim!" said the mama fishy, "Swim if you can!" and they swam and they swam, back over the dam. --Lyrics from "Three Little Fishes" by Saxie Dowell, 1939

Jimmy Decker swears that even after the Rindge Dam was wedged into Malibu Canyon in 1926 to create a water supply for the beach colony, the steelhead continued to migrate upstream to spawn.

"Those years, we'd get up to 50 inches of rain in one season," Decker, 71, recalls. "The water used to pour over the dam six to 10 feet deep."

Decker's family moved into the area in the 1860s and gave its name to a canyon and a road. He fished the upper reaches of the creek when he was 10 and says he caught one steelhead that measured 42 inches.

But by '39, such fishing was a memory, and by the end of World War II, the canyon had filled with silt behind the dam, leaving it useless as a reservoir--worse than useless, really, because it served only to block the steelheads from most of their spawning grounds, and the population dwindled.

"What they should do is blow that damn dam out of there," Decker says.

But some experts think destruction of the 100-foot-high dam not only would cost up to $15 million but would dump enough rubble and silt into the canyon to finish off the fishery.

There may be a better idea: an elevator.

Entrix, Inc. of Walnut Creek, which specializes in fishery studies, recently submitted a detailed report to California Trout, the conservation group, which commissioned the study on a $28,700 grant of Proposition 70 funds from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Proposition 70, approved by voters last year, provided $30 million for specific conservation projects.

Entrix recommended installing a Borland Lift, variations of which have been used successfully in the British Isles for 45 years to help fish get upstream to their spawning areas. A Borland Lift consists of lower and upper chambers connected by a 30-inch-diameter steel pipe.

As fish are attracted into the lower chamber by a flow from above, they trip an electronic sensor, which closes a door behind them and activates a pump that fills the tube from the top. Instinctively remaining near the surface, the fish reach the top of the dam, swim into the upper chamber and slide down a ramp into a pool behind the dam, tripping another sensor connected to a camera that takes their picture, providing an accurate census.

Entrix also proposed less sophisticated devices to ease passage at three other sites: a flume to avoid a six-meter drop at Tunnel Falls along Malibu Canyon Road, a series of three diversionary weirs around a Los Angeles County stream gauge, and a concrete span to replace culverts beneath a bridge at Century Ranch State Park.

Total cost: $554,000.

Why go to all the trouble?

Jim Edmondson, Region 5 manager for CalTrout, credits Dave Drake of the Long Beach office of the State Department of Fish and Game for putting the project in motion four years ago.

"He took me down to the base of the dam and we saw 60 adult (steelheads)," Edmondson said.

The dam is only 2.6 miles from the beach, with 7.7 miles of stream and 86% of the potential spawning habitat beyond the dam, Entrix said. But nobody had a key. Drake and Edmondson saw that, inevitably, the dam would mean the end of the line for steelheads in Malibu Creek.

The steelhead-- Salmo gairdneri gairdneri-- is, essentially, a seagoing rainbow trout. Although steelheads spawn in coastal rivers and streams, they are distinguished by characteristics they acquire in the ocean, such as a steel-blue color and aggressive eating behavior.

"Like lightning striking the tip of your rod," Edmondson said.

They once ran the Pacific coastal streams from Baja California to Alaska but now are found no farther south than Malibu Creek, where a remaining few slip over the sand bars and through the tide pools at high tide to make their way upstream each year.

"This is the next site slated for extinction, (which) has marched steadily northward," Edmondson said.

Reopening the upper reaches, the experts say, not only could restore the fishery but establish it as a "nursery" for this particular strain of steelhead that could be distributed around Southern California.

Sonia Thompson, senior analyst for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, said: "Most of the members are very excited about putting a resource back into that kind of shape in Southern California. It will have tremendous recreational and educational possibilities."

The Conservancy is prepared to cover $250,000 of the cost. The DFG is seeking other state funds for the balance, and CalTrout is lobbying state legislators.

There have been other suggestions over the years--not all as extreme as Decker's proposal to dynamite the dam.

Don Wallace, an L.A. fire captain who narrowly missed an election bid for the County Board of Supervisors last year, is a longtime resident of the area. He says steelheads once ran up Malibu Creek and its tributaries all the way back into the Santa Susana Mountains, almost to Interstate 5. Wallace advocated knocking down the dam a few feet at a time.

"A bunch of Boy Scouts could go in there and kick out three feet a year," he said. "I would like to see it re-established for the animals, the anglers and the viewing.

"I would still opt for a gradual plan over 10 or 20 years, but I would certainly endorse anything that would get the job done."

There are reservations. A sewage treatment plan--the Tapia Water Reclamation Facility--was placed on Malibu Creek in the late '60s, a few miles above the dam. The Entrix report said that because of the influx of treated effluent, the fish habitat for about 200 meters in that stretch is "poor to fair," with no algae on the bottom and "a strong acrid odor."

Elsewhere in their new environment the steelheads would need to be selective to survive. Entrix rated only 41% of the 7.7 miles above the dam as usable rearing habitat, with only 30% of that "good to excellent," the rest "poor to fair."

Spawning prospects were slightly better, but the steelheads would be expected to seek out the cool water of deep pools in stretches where the creek runs through deep gorges that seldom see the sun.

Entrix did not survey the forage potential in depth, but on a tour last week, Edmondson reached down to the bottom of the stream above the dam and pulled up a rock. Clinging to the bottom were several green, wriggling caddis worms, soon to be flies and fish food.

Edmondson pointed out two dangers--poachers and the potential for an environmental accident--that could wipe out the steelheads if the project is not done soon.

Also, although fishing on Malibu Creek is strictly catch-and-release, with single barbless hooks and artificial lures, the estimated 20 to 60 adult steelheads that gather at the pools below the dam each winter are easy prey for illegal anglers with bows or spears.

Decker doesn't fish the creek anymore.

But maybe someday, when the steelheads come back up, he'll change his mind, recalling the 42-inch beauty he caught as a lad.

"There were a lot of 'em like that," he said. "Friends of mine got pictures of it."

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