For years Bob Hart has worried about the fish in Malibu Creek near his electrical contracting office. Sometimes he would wander down the banks of the creek to check on the condition of its rarest species, the steelhead trout.
Last week, he was startled to discover partially decomposed fish laying on rocks. The creek had been reduced to a few scattered pools of water.
"No one is really doing anything to help," Hart said. "We all feel helpless. It's really a shame."
Hart is not alone in his concern for the steelhead trout. He is just one of dozens of people who fear that the legendary fish may be near extinction in the creek for the second time this century.
To anglers and biologists, the steelhead is a magnificent and mysterious fish.
It begins life as a rounded, dark rainbow stream trout, slims to a cigar shape and turns bright silver. It then transforms its kidneys to adapt to salt water and heads for the open sea. Like the salmon, which is hundreds of times more common, steelhead trout generally return annually to their native creek to spawn.
Until 1900, nearly every Southern California river boasted hundreds of steelhead. Since then, urban development has virtually killed off the trout populations in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Then last year, fishermen spotted a handful of steelhead in Malibu Creek.
Ironically, the steelhead were lured to the creek by a sewage treatment plant--a symbol of the technology and development that wiped out the trout in the first place. Since March, 1984, the creek had been swelled by the 3.5-million gallons discharged daily by the Tapia sewage treatment plant.
The increased water volume enabled steelhead to swim into the creek, past celebrities' beachfront homes, past the Cross Creek Shopping Center, past the imposing estates of Serra Retreat, to state-owned property in a more natural condition where the huge trout can peacefully spawn.
In recent weeks, however, Tapia has been selling all of its treated water for irrigation. The discharges once bound for the creek end up on Ventura Freeway landscaping, parks, median strips and school campuses in Agoura Hills and Westlake Village.
"They've created a community of living things and now they're just abandoning it," Hart said.
"About a week ago, you could see the fins of the fish in the water and I thought it was really getting shallow. Now, the water's just gone," he said.
"It's clear that watering daisies along the freeway is more important that trying to save an endangered species," Jim Edmondson, regional manager of California Trout, a San Francisco-based conservation group, said sarcastically.
"The company should have a moral obligation to maintain a flow of water. This is public land," Edmondson said. "I guess the steelheads are considered little wimpy creatures by those people in the water business. That's sad."
Bob Rawstron, the state's chief of inland fisheries, said an unusually dry summer has made the situation worse. "I'd hate to see this whole thing just go down the tubes," he says.
Tapia officials think the sale of the treated water makes sense. They said it conserves drinking water and recoups costs, so that sewage rates can be kept low. Customers who buy treated water pay 75% of the regular cost.
"The trout are important, but so is water conservation," said Jim Colbaugh, director of operations for the Las Virgenes sewage treatment district. "It would be a waste not to recycle the water.
"Agencies have spent millions and millions of dollars to build these treatment facilities," Colbaugh said. "As long as there is such a huge demand for water, it would be stupid to just discharge the valuable water into the creek. I wish we could."
Colbaugh said the plant might have been artificially preserving a species that would have naturally died out years ago.
"We're not making it any drier," he said. "The creek was there for a hundred years before we started discharging water, and the fish survived just fine."