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One Isn't Born Every Minute

Water officials and biologists trek to the threatened sucker fish's Inland Empire habitat.

May 21, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

It was a perfect day for the third-annual Santa Ana Sucker Fish tour -- a triple-digit scorcher with nary a raindrop, only smog.

"Welcome to summer in the Inland Empire!" crowed Mike Wellborn, an organizer of the Santa Ana Watershed Protection Authority's annual event designed to lure bureaucrats "out into the field" to see a real, live threatened species in what remains of its habitat.

Because one rainstorm can blast populations of the rare sucker fish downstream to the treacherous Prado Dam or even to the Pacific, the tour is traditionally held on a hot, dry day near the end of spawning season.

"We have got a sucker!" shouted Dick Zemel of the Orange County Water District at 10:48 a.m. Tuesday, from a wooden bridge spanning the fast-flowing Sunnyside Creek, a tributary of the Santa Ana River in the Riverside County community of Jurupa.

Below, biologist Pat Tennant stood waist-deep in a pool, holding an underwater video camera. A 3-inch-long, translucent brown fish fluttered past: a yearling Santa Ana sucker fish, surviving in the greenery-draped cool waters a few hundred yards below a concrete flood channel.

"Concrete means death" for sucker fish because the flood channels provide no cover, no food and overheated water, said Jonathan Baskin of Cal Poly Pomona, a member of a team of biologists studying the fish's decline and seeking ideas to save it.

The fish, once common in the San Gabriel, Los Angeles and Santa Ana rivers, was declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2000.

Like other sucker species, it vacuums or sucks up algae and other organisms for food. Concrete riverbanks, dams and pollution caused by urban runoff have all played a role in its decline, scientists say.

But the sucker isn't gone yet.

Local water officials say they are helping to sustain the small fish with highly treated effluent released from a sewage plant upstream that serves 160,000 people. The water keeps the river from drying up and has been cleaned so thoroughly, water officials brag, that it is cleaner than most drinking water.

Colleagues from neighboring counties were impressed.

"You see this water? You don't expect to see anything living in it, but it does," said Ruby Maldonado, a senior planner from Orange County.

That's good news for the sucker and other species that are more sensitive to pollutants than homo sapiens. But the district wants to suck 17,000 acre-feet annually out of the river to sell for irrigation and other uses. If too much is drawn out, it could cripple the species' recovery.

The San Bernardino district and other public agencies are contributing a total of $125,000 for five years to come up with a conservation plan they hope will allow them to proceed with flood control, sewage and other projects.

The Center for Biological Diversity won a court victory in February that will force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate "critical habitat" for the species. The local agencies hope their plan will ultimately be accepted by regulators and environmentalists alike, allowing them to kill some fish while contributing funds to save others.

Along a far bank, the biologists have located healthy baby sucker fish in a channel carved out by last month's rains, now flowing with treated runoff.

"A lot of people would say you're standing in an industrial area below a bridge, but I look at this and I see a canvas," said Jeff Beehler, environmental project manager with the Santa Ana watershed protection authority. "This species can survive in places like this."

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