What had been for the last six months a vibrant stream teeming with migrating waterfowls and shorebirds early last week became a dry San Gabriel River channel where vultures gorged themselves on ducklings that died when the flows dried up.
The discovery prompted calls for an investigation into the deaths of at least 20 cinnamon teal ducklings, 10 mallard ducklings and 20 adult mallards that had sought refuge in a shrinking pool of water in a concrete basin just south of Valley Boulevard in the city of Industry.
It also raised questions about the place of nature in an urban water system in which virtually every drop is adjudicated and someone has a claim to.
“The system does not include ducklings as part of the equation,” said D.J. Waldie, spokesman for the city of Lakewood, which borders the river downstream from Industry.
“For decades we managed the San Gabriel River as an engineering project, the purpose of which was to manage aquifers and move storm water away from the city,” he said. “But in recent years, more and more people have been raising questions about nature’s place in our lives and in the Southern California landscape, and they need to be answered.”
Andrew Lee, a local chemist who frequently goes bird-watching along the river and discovered the dead birds, would not argue with any of that. “I dropped by there on Tuesday and, wow, the water was gone and everything was dead.”
Lee e-mailed photographs of what he described as “carnage” to other birders and Audubon Society members who, in turn, forwarded them to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, along with demands for an explanation.
“The county should have better management practices,” Lee said. “If only they could have waited a little longer to let the water recede, maybe the birds would have lived. After all, mid-July is peak breeding season.”
In an interview at the river, Adam Walden and Sterling Klippel, civil engineers in the department’s water resources division, expressed regret that the birds died but pointed out that their mission is to maintain a complex water system for millions of people countywide, not to protect ducklings.
“We’re happy when migrating waterfowl uses water in the river to rest and breed,” Klippel said. “But when water is available, it’s flowing. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Once it percolates into the aquifer, there’s no way, even if we wanted to, to provide water to the birds that are oftentimes out there.”
On Thursday, several days too late for the ducks, water released from high in the San Gabriel Mountains three weeks ago arrived at the stretch of river that a day earlier was a parched course of sand and gravel.
Gushing downstream at a rate of about 300 yards an hour, the water pushed rabbits and ground squirrels out of the channel and formed pools that were magnets for green herons, egrets and swallows.
“There’s some little ducklings right there,” Klippel said. “Look at the little guys.”
Garry George, conservation chairman of Los Angeles Audubon, said he planned to send Lee’s photographs and notes to state wildlife authorities.
“It’s against state and federal laws to kill or harass migratory birds,” George said. “Here’s a county flood control policy that is in conflict with those laws. Obviously, there has to be an investigation.”
Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, agreed, to a point.
“It would be nice if they took into account impacts on vulnerable nesting birds before they manipulate water levels,” he said. “This illustrates the bigger problem, which is that if we have these channelized rivers intended for flood control but are also the only de facto wildlife habitat left, shouldn’t we manage for both purposes?”
But what should the proportion of flood-control channel to duckling be?
“Right now, there isn’t enough water in our system to keep perpetual flows in the San Gabriel River,” Walden said. “It would cost about $300,000 a day to maintain a flow of 900 acre-feet per day in the stream.” That would be enough to cover the stream bed bank to bank about a foot deep.
Surveying the recharged river channel from a berm overlooking the concrete drop structure that Lee said was strewn with duck carcasses last week, Walden added, “We’re the good guys. If not for this operation, the entire southern reach of this river would be dry as a desert. So when people ask, ‘What about the ducks?’ I tell them we’re providing a quasi-refuge.”
The San Gabriel ranks among the steepest rivers in the United States, plunging from 9,900-foot headwaters to the ocean in about 70 miles. Five major dams impede its wet-season cargo of snowmelt and rain from boulder-strewn wild forks in the San Gabriel Mountains to sandy outfall.
Water rights to the San Gabriel date to the late 1800s and remain in force by way of a finely crafted system of legal directives.
Today, the river and the aquifers it recharges serve 2.4 million people in the San Gabriel Valley and southeast Los Angeles County. Dozens of municipalities and obscure water companies hold title to the river’s bounty.
Storms occasionally restore the river to its full length, but only briefly. Its soft bed yields to flood-control concrete for 10 of its final 13 miles. Tides backwash the San Gabriel as it empties at Seal Beach.
“Its balance of benefit weighs in favor of humans, not wildlife,” Waldie said. “Does it need an advocate for wildlife in the same way there are advocates for movement of its water toward bathtubs, taps and lawns from Whittier to Long Beach?”
“That’s a difficult question to ask in a time of serious drought,” he said.