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After the Spill : State Officials Want to Let Nature Take Course on Upper Sacramento River, but Dunsmuir's Economy Can't Stand to Wait

December 25, 1991|RICH ROBERTS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DUNSMUIR, Calif. — Christmas is a little colder this year. Fishing season on 45 miles of the Upper Sacramento River ended four months early last July 14 when a Southern Pacific tank car derailed at the Cantara Loop bridge, ruptured and spilled 19,000 gallons of herbicide into the stream.

"I'll never forget that smell--like rotten eggs and sulfur," says Larry Green, an outdoor writer who lives upstream.

Mike Rode, a fishery biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, recalls the "milky, light-greenish" color of the water.

Green saw trout thrashing and gasping on the banks, some eight feet from the water's edge. But most of all he remembers "the deathly silence."

"No birds singing along the river. Nothing," he said. "You just had a sense of death. It was all gone in a flash."

More than 100,000 fish were dead, along with the insects they lived on. Wildlife was hit hard. Riparian plant life was killed--that's what metam sodium is supposed to do.

Worse, Ron McCloud's cash register went dead. Business went belly up at Shasta Lake far downstream, although the lake was barely touched by the spill. The outside world's perception compounded the catastrophe.

Dave Schwabel, who guides for salmon fishing 75 miles away on the river below Shasta Lake, said the fishing was great all season, but the people stopped coming.

"I was taking five calls a night, booking trips," Schwabel said. "After the spill, I didn't get any."

In Dunsmuir, though, the destruction was real.

"It was like someone flipped a switch," said McCloud, who runs a hardware store. "I haven't sold a fishing rod (since)."

And he isn't likely to until the river comes back to life. That's at the heart of a disagreement about how to restore the Upper Sacramento to its status as listed in the book describing about a dozen of "California's Blue Ribbon Trout Streams," published only weeks before the accident.

CalTrout, the private conservation organization, sees this as a "golden opportunity" to recreate the perfect fishery, starting from scratch.

The DFG is cautious. Dave Hoopaugh, who has headed the aquatic investigation on damage and recovery, said: "Every time we think we know how to play God, we find out we don't."

The department's idea, after some early waffling, is to leave it alone, let nature takes its course and study it for a couple of years--with Southern Pacific paying $10 million for the study.

Local merchants are impatient. They want fish planted in a limited section by spring, when the next season opens and the anglers start rolling in. If they do.

"They're going to study the thing to death," McCloud said. "This is the biggest bureaucratic boondoggle I've ever seen."

The Upper Sacramento River and the Southern Pacific Railroad are as intertwined as worms in a bait box as they wind through the canyons of the Cascade Range in northern California. A fishing map even notes: "Hiking along the RR tracks is required to fish the area between Prospect St. and Cantara Rd."

The river and the tracks literally divide this community of 2,300--a fading community, it seems, since logging vanished and the railroad cut back its local operations, leaving Dunsmuir no longer a major switching point but simply a place the trains pass through.

But it's not a divided town, McCloud says. It's more like a town wrestling with a problem while outside interests are telling it how to run its river. CalTrout, in its own report, even told Southern Pacific how to run its railroad.

The railroad--not fishing--built the town. "California's Historic Railroad Town," the brochures declare with pride. They celebrated "Railroad Days" every year. Then, with cruel irony, the railroad did the town in.

But try to find anybody in Dunsmuir to knock the railroad. For most of this century it put food on their tables and sent their kids to college. Outsiders are the enemy.

"Fish and Game has said this river belongs to the people of the state of California," McCloud said. "But, by God, it's in my back yard. We live with it."

McCloud said he has collected more than 600 signatures on a petition to restock the river immediately with hatchery fish--the anathema of serious anglers, the fly-fishermen.

Louie Dewey, who runs the Cave Springs Motel at the north end of town, is among the minority who think the merchants are "shortsighted." He caters to fly-fishermen, an issue that raises the hackles of those who feel CalTrout is pushing the DFG to create an elitist fishery.

"I'm a fly-fisherman," McCloud said. "But the fly-fishermen who come into my store buy $5 worth of flies. The families and the grandkids who fish with bait have walked out with $100 or $200 worth of gear."

Others wonder why there is concern, considering that Southern Pacific has paid settlements based on the projected income of the next four years to almost anybody--including McCloud--who could produce reasonable records of previous receipts.

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