Along the muddy, meandering Santa Clara River, a tiny prehistoric-looking fish known as the unarmored three-spine stickleback has been brushing up against some bizarre waterway companions: several thousand lemon trees, countless waterlogged oranges, assorted rusty tools.
The fruit and tools come from more than a million dollars worth of prime agricultural topsoil that now lies in the Santa Clara River, swept away during this winter's unrelenting storms.
As he stood recently on a crumbling bank, eroded overnight by the river's crashing torrents, rancher John Frye described the "sickening feeling" of watching 3,000 prime lemon trees tumble into the river.
Frye, vice president of agriculture for the Newhall Land & Farming Co., said that even more devastating was the knowledge that "all this was preventable."
Because the inch-long stickleback and half a dozen other endangered or threatened species live in and around the Santa Clara, farmers along the 100-mile river must obtain clearance from several government agencies before building earthen bulwarks, lining the banks with boulders or otherwise protecting their groves from the rushing water.
Frustrated with a permitting process that can take years, many growers blame environmentalists for their recent losses and accuse bureaucrats of stripping them of the right to improve their private property.
If local ranchers had been allowed to bulldoze a narrow channel down the center of the river bed, they argue, even a rain-swollen Santa Clara would have stayed on course, instead of raging through their orchards. Less dramatic steps, such as piling concrete blocks along the bank, could have saved scores of acres as well.
Maybe so, biologists counter, but human meddling could wreck the fragile wetland ecosystem, destroy the stickleback's favorite haunts and damage habitats of other protected species.
Further complicating the issue, sand and gravel interests are clamoring for permission to mine the river bottom--which is technically owned by each of the 249 farmers whose land abuts the slow-flowing Santa Clara.
The standoff in western Ventura County follows the pattern of man-versus-nature showdowns everywhere. Hard-liners on each side snipe at opponents' extremism, while moderates quietly seek compromise.
A 23-member committee, representing environmental agencies, agriculture and the mining industry, has begun to explore river-rights issues. In addition, the state Coastal Conservancy has put up $200,000 to partly fund a two-year study of the Santa Clara's habits and habitats.
Visions of devastation spur the participants on.
Weeks after a brutal winter storm socked the region, uprooted lemon trees remain stranded midstream, ripe fruit vivid against brittle brown-green leaves. Wooden poles standing in foot-high water serve as futile boundary markers, delineating the fringes of now-vanished orchards.
Heaps of dead cottonwood and bamboo choke silty sandbars--remnants of the wetland vegetation, which suffered as much damage as the orchards when the river tumbled through the Santa Clara valley. Such destruction is normal for wetlands, biologists say, noting that some animals depend on the river to clear out deadwood so that new plants can blossom.
But what's healthy for wetlands is deadly for agriculture.
"I'm a career environmentalist, but I wake up at 3 a.m. thinking, 'What can I possibly do to protect the wildlife and still allow farmers to protect their private property?' " said Ken Wilson, an environmental services specialist with the state Department of Fish and Game.
"I see them losing their trees and I feel really badly," he said. "We can't forget that's happening. But our principal goal is protection of wildlife. That may seem unreasonable to some, but that's the law."
In an effort to balance competing needs, the Department of Fish and Game considers farmers' requests to plant thick vegetation or install concrete boulders along the riverbanks as a barricade against the water's erosive powers. Ranchers can also apply for permission to clear out some of the growth that chokes the river's central channel and forces the water to carve alternative paths through the neighboring fields.
But while the Department of Fish and Game promises decisions on permit requests within 30 days, farmers still face a maze of other bureaucracy before they can get final clearance to protect their land.
"You can't help but be frustrated," said Fillmore grower Jim Finch, who watched helplessly this winter as the voracious river swept away a sixth of his vegetable and citrus farm and carried off irrigation pipes and a full toolshed. "It's so restrictive, you just kind of give up."
The regulatory agencies responsible for evaluating farmers' river-protection schemes include the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, which often takes up to six months to grant a permit; the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the county flood control district.
Their goal: to enforce federal laws protecting endangered species, from the inch-long spiky stickleback to a small gray shore bird called the least Bell's vireo that lives in young willows along the river's banks.
While they sympathize with the farmers' plight, the regulators maintain that any efforts to control the river--which flows unpredictably over a 1,000-yard swath--could kill rare animals.
"Most of the species that are sensitive would be extinct in this valley if the river were channelized," said Cat Brown, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Just putting up concrete on the bank in one location could change what happens upstream or downstream."
Sick of rehashing the animals-versus-lemons debate, some growers are trying a new approach: limiting their goals to streamlining the permitting process, rather than attacking the entire environmental movement.
A simple phone call to the Department of Fish and Game can get a farmer permission to do emergency work to protect fields during a storm. But the hastily assembled bulwarks slapped together in emergencies are expensive and often not solid enough to resist the water's crushing force.
And obtaining routine permits to do work before the rains hit can take months or even years.
"The river is like Pac-Man, going nibble, nibble, nibble--or, during peak flow, gobble, gobble, gobble," said Santa Paula rancher Mary Ann Berrington, who lost about 500 orange and grapefruit trees last month, along with the rich topsoil that nurtured them.
After obtaining an emergency permit last month, Berrington and her husband, Jim, spent $5,000 to build a sand-and-earth bulwark protecting part of their property. But the densely packed wall melted away under the water's driving force during the most recent storm.
"We need help protecting what we have, or else we'll be regulated out of business," Berrington said.
The committee representatives, appointed by member groups, will evaluate how to speed up the permitting process. But for now, "taking the risk of doing it and getting away with it is the only streamlined way I know," said Chris Taylor, president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.
Ironically, one farmer who tried that just-do-it approach has been charged with unlawful business practices because he avoided the red tape that has stymied other growers.
Back in 1989, Glen Griswold chopped down dry bamboo and willow trees from several acres of his land and cleared away growth from the riverbed to clear a central channel--a practice that the Ventura County Flood Control District used to follow for years, growers said.
But Griswold took these steps without obtaining permits, prompting the state Department of Fish and Game to file civil charges against him a few months ago. The fine in the case could be as high as $150,000.
With the case pending, "we were afraid to do anything to protect ourselves this winter" and, as a result, the rains caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to wells, Griswold said.
Such legal battles scare members of the river committee, charged with devising regulations that satisfy ranchers, environmentalists and miners.
"The Santa Clara River is one of the most important resources in the state," said Reed Holderman of the Coastal Conservancy, who sits on the committee. "We need to get a jump on (a compromise) now. The longer we delay, the more controversy and conflicts will ensue."