The project will cost an estimated $1 million. With the prodding of Edmonson and others, it has become the No. 2 regional priority for the Department of Fish and Game.
The state Department of Parks and Recreation, which owns the land on which the dam sits, will have the final voice in whether the dam comes down and when. But Rawstron said the Fish and Game recommendation will carry considerable weight in the decision.
More money from citizens or environmental groups would speed the demise of the dam, Edmonson said, and he is hopeful that the biggest obstacle to the steelhead's chances of survival can be removed in the next few years.
Biologists estimate that only 250,000 steelhead remain as spawners in all of California's coastal streams, and that 4,000 eggs will produce only four adult steelhead. The Malibu Creek spawning run may have contained as many as 500 adult fish per year in the past century, Edmonson said. But now one sewage spill into the creek, or a drought, could wipe out the entire strain of Malibu steelhead.
"There's not much time," Edmonson said. "One or two years could be crucial. If we're not very careful here, they could be all gone before we can react."
Edmonson's concern for the fish was rewarded last winter when he spent several nights on the beach at the mouth of the river, watching by moonlight the dramatic assault on the ankle-deep riffles by the giant fish.
"The river was fairly high and as soon as the tide peaked, they started coming in," he said. "Waves were breaking and some of them would surf in, riding the crest of a wave into the mouth of the stream. It was quite a sight. They'd shoot by real fast, one at a time, but I could see that brilliant slash of red on their sides and that shiny, metallic silver color of the rest of their bodies. It was an impressive thing to see."
Biologists have trapped steelhead in the creek during the past few winters using a weir net developed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Steelhead as large as 13 pounds have been documented, specimens measuring 35 or more inches. The average size of the adult spawners is between 7 and 8 pounds, Edmonson said. The health and quality of the fish appears fine; it is the quantity that has the concerned parties worried.
Giles Manwaring of Malibu is one who worries. A former president of the Isaac Walton League, a national fishing, environmental and conservation organization, Manwaring owns a fishing lodge on the famed Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. He has caught steelhead from that area's Anchor River, which is considered to be North America's northernmost spawning stream for the fish. He lives less than a mile from the southernmost steelhead spawning stream.
"One of the most exciting things that ever happened to me was the night of Valentine's Day in 1987 when we trapped a steelhead in the weir net one night," Manwaring said. "I hiked up to see it at 11 at night. She was 20 inches long and weighed 3 pounds and was full of eggs. It was a big thrill."
Manwaring has devoted much time to the Malibu Creek project and has come to admire the steelhead in it for their toughness.
"This is a special adaptation of the same steelhead that spawned here centuries ago," he said. "Just the thought of that is powerful. These Malibu Creek steelhead have learned how to survive here, how to figure out the drought periods of low water and how to preserve their eggs and young in the deep pools. These are really special fish."
His enchantment with the creek and its fish, he said, led him to a passage from the book, "A Sand County Almanac," by environmentalist Aldo Leopold:
\o7 There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. Like the winds and the sunsets. Wild things are taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question of whether a still higher standard of living is worth its cost in things natural and wild and free.
\f7 "That's what Malibu Creek is all about," Manwaring said. "That's all you have to say about it."