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Mud, boulders destroy hatchery

A massive debris flow leaves 25 homes and a fish farm in rubble.

July 15, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

A massive weekend debris flow in the Eastern Sierra, triggered by a monsoon-like storm, destroyed 25 homes and wiped out the entire stock of one of California's oldest fish hatcheries along U.S. 395, authorities said Monday.

Emergency response crews were clearing boulders and mud from the scene along the south fork of Oak Creek just north of Independence, the seat of sparsely populated Inyo County, about 170 miles north of Los Angeles.

No injuries were reported. The slide, caused by unusually heavy rains Saturday, hit a region that was blackened by a forest fire one year ago. It destroyed the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery's brood stock of a strain of rainbow trout that had been nurtured since 1916.

The full extent of the damage was not realized until Monday morning when authorities investigated the scene along heavily wooded Oak Creek.

Manager Robert Wakefield surveyed the damage to his historic Eastern Sierra fish hatchery. He shook his head and said, "We are going to work hard to make it better, but this place will never be the same."

Wakefield said at least 3,000 3-year-old fish were buried by boulders and other debris that washed down from alpine slopes.

"About 15% to 20% of the 40-acre hatchery is covered in mud," Wakefield said. The flood reconfigured the stream and "destroyed my water supply," he said.

Andy Herrera, assistant fish hatchery manager, said he was at home watching television about 5:30 p.m. Saturday when "I heard a loud rumbling. I looked out the screen door and saw water and boulders taking apart our spawning houses."

"We were expecting rain that night, but not acres of mud and boulders," he said. "Within minutes, the spawning houses were gone and boulders rolled through the master bedroom of my neighbor's home. There was no one in it except four cats, and two of them were lost.

"At my house," he added. "There is mud up to the windows."

A community meeting was scheduled for 5 p.m. today at the Independence Region Hall. Among those expected to answer questions about the local disaster will be representatives from the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross.

On Monday, Oak Creek had turned the color of chocolate, and vultures and ravens were hovering over the dead trout, which weighed 4 to 5 pounds each.

Dozens of trophy trout floated belly-up in what had been a scenic pond shaded by stately elm trees in front of the hatchery's massive stone walls.

The hatchery -- the second-oldest in California -- is especially important in the state system as an egg producer.

That was only one of the reasons that Bruce Ivey, director of a support group called Friends of Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery, was concerned about the devastation.

"Hatcheries statewide and along the Eastern Sierra are facing problems," he said.

About 14 miles north on U.S. 395, Fish Springs Hatchery, one of the largest in the region, is scheduled for expansion, provided it can overcome worries about adversely affecting the local aquifer. Eighty miles to the north, Hot Creek State Fish Hatchery has been invaded by zebra mussels.

Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery had been targeted for closure in the past. Now, Ivey fears state authorities may decide it's not worth refurbishing. "We can't let that happen."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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