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Massive Fish Kills Blamed on Bureaucratic Breakdown

July 25, 1985|VICTOR M. VALLE | Times Staff Writer

A communications breakdown between the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and the state Fish and Game Department has apparently led to the deaths of thousands of trout and non-game fish in Big Tujunga Creek north of Sunland and the San Gabriel Reservoir north of Azusa.

The fish kills occurred within the last three months after the county department, which manages large stretches of the San Gabriel River and Big Tujunga Creek for flood-control purposes, lowered water in the San Gabriel and Big Tujunga reservoirs to perform maintenance.

Fish and game biologists say that lowering the water in the San Gabriel Reservoir and the cutoff of water from Big Tujunga Reservoir to Big Tujunga Creek caused fish to suffocate or succumb to infections because they could not withstand the reduced levels of oxygen and higher water temperatures caused by the actions.

The problem came to light after game wardens reported dead fish in the San Gabriel Reservoir. Biologists reported to their superiors in the Fish and Game Department in May that more than 200 rainbow trout had floated to the surface of the reservoir. Fish and Game wardens had put 8,500 trout in the reservoir just seven days before the county began to lower the dam's water level, greatly increasing the number of fish that would eventually die.

Full Damage Unknown

In Big Tujunga Creek, carcasses of thousands of three small species of native fish are still visible. Sightings of dead trout introduced into the creek were reported last month, authorities say.

In an attempt to clarify the events surrounding the fish kills and improve communications, Brad Nuremberg, a fish and game commissioner for Los Angeles County, has invited county and state officials and representatives of two sportfishing clubs to a meeting on Friday.

Barrett McInerney, vice president of California Trout Inc., one of the sportfishing organizations, said that the fish kills are not just the result of a communications breakdown but the failure of the state to protect the fisheries of Region 5, California's largest wildlife management area. Region 5 encompasses nine central and Southern California counties stretching from Mono County to the Mexican border.

Didn't Grasp Severity

Fred A. Worthley, manager of Region 5, would not respond to McInerney's claims but did acknowledge that he is at least partly responsible for the San Gabriel Reservoir incident. "From our perspective," Worthley said, "we didn't understand the severity of" the effects of lowering the reservoir.

He also said there were delays in communications with his staff. "Sometimes it may take time for something to get to me," he said. "In San Gabriel and Big Tujunga, there was a time lapse before I understood what was going on."

In the Big Tujunga Creek incident, Worthley said, the Fish and Game Department was surprised by the county's lowering of the water level of the dam.

McInerney and Jim Edmondson, president of the Pasadena Casting Club, agree that communications between the county and state agencies must be improved. "The county has to be sensitized to the fact that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction," McInerney said.

Agency 'Afraid'

"But when one agency is so afraid of coming out of the office to take a position because the anticipation of conflict causes them to freeze, the results are what we have floating on the surface of Big Tujunga Creek," McInerney said, referring to the Fish and Game Department.

Worthley said his department has consistently acted to prevent damage to the region's resources. In the Big Tujunga incident, he said the department can take legal action to prevent further fish kills or sue for damages.

The real tragedy of the fish kills, said biologist Drake, is not just the temporary loss of a recreational resource. Fish can always be planted, he said. What worries Drake is the gradual degradation of a habitat and its long-term effects.

In Big Tujunga Creek, Drake said, the loss of the non-game species eliminates an important food source for birds and mammals during the summer.

To Edmondson, the Big Tujunga fish kill is a clear signal that something is seriously wrong with wildlife management practices.

The non-game species "are the yardstick for measuring the quality of our environment," Edmondson said. "They were here before flood control. They were not planted by Fish and Game. Their survival depends only on the quality of the environment."

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