Will steelhead ever return to the L.A. River?


Twenty-five-inch steelhead trout caught in the Los Angeles River near Glendale, in January, 1940. (Courtesy family of Dr. Charles L. Hogue)

It may be a ridiculous notion to think the Los Angeles River could ever support a resident steelhead population.  In fact, it may be ridiculous to contemplate that this gritty icon of shoot-‘em-up movies like “To Live and Die in L.A.” will ever shed its miles of concrete, flood-control skin in favor of a sustainable habitat. Yet, talk to the various players in the multi-year, multi-million dollar reconstruction drama and a common theme emerges: steelhead restoration. Whether it’s actually feasible or not, the steelhead has become a symbol of the river’s potential rebirth. In the years to come, whether flapping fins or flummery will triumph, remains to be seen.

Problems abound with a restoration effort of this size, 51 miles through a morass of  cities, from the San Fernando Valley to the port of Long Beach. Those reading these pages outside of Los Angeles must wonder if steelhead ever swam in the river to begin with.  The answer, which is ironic even to those of us locals who regularly ply the water for carp, is “yes.”

“The southern steelhead Distinct Population Segment goes from the Santa Maria River in San Luis Obispo County down to the Border.  Say 50-75 years ago, the size of that population run was about 30,000 adults,” said Trout Unlimited’s Chuck Bonham, who will be the new director of the Department of Fish and Game, if his appointment is confirmed by the state senate. If you pull out a map and take a look at the enormous area he’s talking about, it’s obvious that even during the heyday, there weren’t a lot of fish.

Today, those numbers have plummeted in the area and are at zero in the river, itself. Southern California Steelhead have been on the Endangered Species list since 1997. To be put on it, a species must be viewed by scientists as imminently in danger of becoming extinct.

Although anecdotes (and the iconic picture above) point to the last steelhead being pulled from the Los Angeles River in 1940, activist and poet Lewis MacAdams, one of the three founders of FOLAR, has kept that mythology alive.  The river mantra is his: “When the steelhead return, we’ll know our job is done.”

In 1995, political restoration activities began with the county, which led to the City Council’s approval of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan in May, 2007, created with $3 million from the Department of Water and Power’s deep coffers. The plan contains many items – revitalizing the river, greening adjacent neighborhoods and creating value through economic opportunities – and includes more than a dozen references to steelhead. Key among them are “… ideally, developing fish passages, fish ladders, and riffle pools to allow for restoration of steelhead trout habitat.”

“It was a recognition by the design team and the city that fish habitat would be good and to strive for it as a goal,” said Ira Artz, the project manager at Tetra Tech, the environmental engineering and consulting firm responsible for the plan. According to the plan, “the long-term vision for the river involves restoring a continuous, functioning riparian ecosystem along the river corridor.” Improvements should include:

– Decreasing water temperature through shade

– Improving water quality

– Creating an unimpeded path from the ocean to the headwaters, along with areas to rest and to spawn

– Inducing a natural flow regime of high and low-flows

Two of the four have improved incrementally as of this writing, water quality and pathways.

Steelhead aside, getting any project shovel ready faces a myriad of political hurdles. According to city documents, the river flows through seven U.S. Congressional districts, 10 city council districts, approximately 20 neighborhood councils and 12 community plan areas. On top of that with about 10 million people, L.A. is the nation’s second largest urban region, and Long Beach down the road is one of the world’s busiest ports. It also happens to be where the river exits to the ocean.

Yet, there are the beginnings of a solution if you look north to one of the L.A. River’s main tributaries, the Arroyo Seco. If fact, the founding of the city in 1781 took place at the confluence of these two bodies of water. As part of the restoration plan, Confluence Plaza was inaugurated in the shadow of the I-5 freeway earlier this year.

“Historically,” Tim Brick, managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, an environmental group, said in his offices at the River Center, “the Arroyo Seco had a really rich trout culture, including steelhead. And there are lots of historical references to steelhead on the Arroyo Seco and, really, in the L.A. river system. Brick is a “money where your mouth is” kind of guy, who recently with the help of CDM corporation and a $2 million grant from the state’s Water Resources Control Board, spearheaded the return of 300 minnowlike native Arroyo Chub to a newly restored native habitat. “We view the re-establishment of the Arroyo Chub as the first step toward the re-establishment of steelhead in the L.A. River.”

Wendy Katagi, CDM’s environmental planner, who worked with Brick on the restoration project, naturally agreed. “We should focus on doing steelhead recovery in the upper watershed. They miraculously hang on, these populations. The best thing we can do is create and mimic natural stream morphology elements through whatever is needed. Then the likelihood of species recovery goes way up.”

Moreover, Gordon Becker, a senior scientist with the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, based in Oakland, Calif., spent months – if not years – analyzing Department of Fish and Game stocking records, field notes and surveys from the 1920s into this century for all of Los Angeles County. His study, published in 2008, speaks to the small number of fish currently present.

A steelhead rendered on the Guardians of the River gate. Once these oceangoing trout ran up the river. Time for them to return.

Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to provide an estimate for the number of steelhead in streams of L.A. County, according to Becker. The surveys he reviewed were not population estimates, which is what one would need to say anything at all about abundance.

“Essentially,” he continued in an e-mail, “steelhead in the county are opportunistic at this point. In some years, successful spawning may occur in Malibu Creek, or Arroyo Sequit, or Zume Canyon Creek, or Topanga Creek, but we can’t describe the situation as a steelhead ‘run’ of any particular size. It is my opinion that supplementation will need to be pursued if we are to have a real run in a SoCal stream in the future.”

Today, the city’s point person for the massive river project is Carol Armstrong. After serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand and witnessing firsthand the toll Asian development took on the environment, she enrolled in the University of Southern California’s Sustainable Cities program and received her PhD.

She coined “riverly,” which you’ll hear at most meetings about the subject. She explained another of her creations, Steelhead Fred, while standing next to the bike lane overlooking the river at three-acre Marsh Park, which is a “detention park,” meaning it’s designed to partially fill with water during heavy rain. As she looked across the river toward the San Gabriel Mountains, sporadic afternoon two-wheel traffic filled this newly opened stretch of the bike path, another sign of the river’s rebirth and its increasing connection to the community.

“Environmentalists say ‘we will not have accomplished L.A. river revitalization until the steelhead trout returns,’ so we came up with Steelhead Fred, the steelhead trout, and we ask developers and project proponents, all of them, is it riverly?”

Currently, consensus is that the most riverly project to finish is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers L.A. River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study that began in 2006 with the city as the local partner. It looks at the 10-mile stretch of soft bottom that stretches from Glendale Narrows, plus Headworks Reservoir in Burbank, through downtown to First Street. This area, part of which is across from Griffith Park, is the most popular with fly fishers looking to hook carp. Besides having a soft bottom – as opposed to concrete – it contains what the Corps calls “ecological value” and has the most water in it year around.

The Corps controls the concrete. So without the study, which would then possibly lead to an actual project, okayed by Congress, no concrete will be exchanged for terracing or plantings, or improving fish passage. It will remain what it was constructed to be – a flood conveyance channel with the aim of getting high-flow water from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Currently, completing the feasibility study will cost $2.6 million, according to Armstrong, and it’s nowhere to be found in President Obama’s 2012 budget, even though it’s a No. 1 priority of the Urban Waters Partnership Program. Recently, Councilperson Ed Reyes, the river’s chief and most dogged proponent, was in Washington asking President Obama to fund the study.

Josephine Axt, the Army Corps planning division chief, is a civilian, a PhD. biologist and rides her bike to work, changing into appropriately conservative work attire, picked from a closet inside her office. “There’s a lot of functionality that we can restore that then might create conditions that would be conducive to fish,” but she stresses that the goals and objectives for the long-awaited study were established some years ago and they’re not to bring back fish.

“To me, if steelhead come back or not, it’s not the measure that I hope the restoration study is measured by. To me, it’s much more about habitat in general.”

Paradoxically, of the 240 potential river projects, not one deals specifically with steelhead restoration.

“We know steelhead won’t be back tomorrow,” continued Armstrong, “but each and every thing we do should build to a place where it’s possible. And by looking at it now, it’s not absurd, but there’s a reason that we do what we do. It’s respecting life, bringing life back … .”

And nature’s clock continues to tick – albeit slowly. About a quarter-mile up from the Figueroa Street Bridge, lie slabs of concrete that the river has started to reclaim. The water’s going underneath the channel there and taking out the concrete. Eventually the river will have to be rechannelized, one way or the other.

“Maybe next time they rechannelize it, they do it to the specifications of the steelhead,” mused Lewis MacAdams. “Have a panel of steelhead, fins up, fins down. Let the steelhead decide the shape of the channel. I’ve always felt that what we were doing was calling things home. You know, ‘it’s OK to come back’. There is something to that.”

See you on the river, Jim Burns

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4 thoughts on “Will steelhead ever return to the L.A. River?

  1. Wow Jim,

    That to me would be a very long term goal, given the massive changes that have occurred in your river and it’s watershed over the last 60-70 years. I can not help but wonder if the powers to be will ever shed their fear of floods and allow a river not enclosed in a bed of concrete. Even if natural events destroy and break up the solid bed, which is and has and will continue to happen, the pressure to rechannelize would be tremendous. Given temperature change as a wild card as well and possibly even the best laid plans, as far as they can go in your urban situation, would not allow trout survival, especially steelhead during the smolting process. I have worked with our local TU Chapter, they and others can do a lot of positive things, but this seems like a very uphill climb, no pun intended.

    Gregg

    • Yes, Gregg, I agree. The real hope, I think, is in repopulating steelhead in the surrounding mountains. That’s really the goal of Tim Brick and the Arroyo Seco Foundation. The problem then is to get them access to the ocean. Thanks for reading and commenting.:) Jim

  2. Perhaps in my sons lifetime the steelhead might return to the LA River, but even then it seems highly unlikely, an incredible challenge for sure. We could all hope or wish for the return.

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