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Fish Foul--Up : County, State Officials Dispute Blame for Deaths in San Gabriel Reservoir

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

An apparent communications breakdown between the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and the state Fish and Game Department has resulted in destruction in the last three months of thousands of trout and native non-game fish in San Gabriel Reservoir north of Azusa and Big Tujunga Creek north of Sunland.

In both cases, the fish kills occurred after the Department of Public Works (DPW), which manages large portions of the San Gabriel River and Big Tujunga Creek for flood control purposes, lowered water levels in the San Gabriel and Big Tujunga reservoirs to perform maintainence work on the dams.

Fish and game biologists say that lowering the water level of 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 that resulted from lower water levels.

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 San Gabriel Reservoir. Fish and game wardens had planted 8,500 trout in the reservoir just seven days before the DPW began to lower the dam's water level, greatly increasing the number of fish that would eventually die.

Full Damage Unknown

Although the biologists say the full extent of the damage cannot be determined because not all dead fish float to the surface, thousands of native and stocked fish are believed to have perished in the reservoir's oxygen-depleted water.

In Big Tujunga Creek, carcasses of thousands of three minnow-sized native species of fish are still visible, their shiny, pulpy bodies decomposing in the shallow creek's moss-filled water. Sightings of dead trout planted in the creek were reported earlier last month, fish and game authorities say.

In an attempt to clarify the events surrounding the fish kills and to keep channels of communication open, Brad Nurembrug, a fish and game commissioner for Los Angeles County, has invited state fish and game and DPW officials, as well as representatives from two sport fishing clubs, to a meeting on Friday. Club spokesmen and officials for both agencies say they will send representatives to the meeting.

Barrett McInerney, vice president of California Trout Inc., one of the sport fishing organizations, said that the fish kills are not just the result of a communications breakdown but the failure of the state Fish and Game Department to aggressively protect the fisheries of Region 5, California's largest and most populous wildlife management area. Region 5 encompasses nine Central and Southern California counties stretching from Mono, Inyo, Santa Barbara and San Bernardino counties to the Mexican border.

Didn't Grasp Severity

Fred A. Worthley, state Fish and Game Department manager for Region 5, would not respond to McInerney's claims but did acknowledge that he is at least partly responsible for the San Gabriel Reservoir fish kill. "From our perspective," Worthley said, "we didn't understand the severity of" the results of lowering the reservoir's water level.

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

Roslyn Robson, a Department of Public Works spokeswoman, said the county agency gave the Fish and Game Department four days' notice in April of its plan to release 7,122 acre-feet of water from the reservoir so that county crews could repair a valve and other dam structures. Fish and game officials estimate that by mid-May, 99% of the reservoir's water had been released.

Despite Worthley's contention that he did not fully understand the impact of lowering the dam's water level, David Drake, a fish and game fisheries biologist, said in a July 8 memorandum to one of his supervisors that he had warned fish and game officials that lowering the water level that much could kill large numbers of fish. He said in the memorandum that the agency could have stopped the DPW by demanding a stream-bed alteration agreement or an environmental impact report before the dam's water level could be lowered.

Request Rejected

Robson said fish and game officials did make the requests recommended by Drake but that DPW officials turned them down because they did not think the reports were required for conducting routine maintenance work. Robson said Worthley queried the DPW about the plans but did not demand that the release of water be halted.

Worthley would not comment on Drake's memorandum, except to say that better communications between the agencies are needed to prevent future fish kills.

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