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Feb-27-2010 03:20printcomments

Protecting Native Endangered Species Keeps California Beautiful
Southern Steelhead Trout

"What is now proved was once imagined."
— William Blake
"The truth is more important than the facts."
— Frank Lloyd Wright
"Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over."- Mark Twain (attributed)

Fish in Aliso Creek
Photo Courtesy: Biologist & Principal Carl J. Page Aquatic Resource Specialists Environmental and Ecological Consulting Services.

(LAGUNA BEACH) - Drought cycles that result in fresh water resource depletions, combined with increasing subterranean aquifer drafting down, renew the century-old battle in California to find a sustainable balance of protected wilderness and increased human population demands in my home state.

The state is being pressured to increase the upper limits of existing water rights appropriations of surface and groundwater, both closely monitored and regulated through our State Resource Board.

These entitlements are owned by various public agencies, private corporations and thirsty agricultural users. Other entities are waiting in the wings to acquire new rights, rights that once in place the state must defend, not the holders. The mantra is simple, a basic legal tenet: “First in time, first in rights.”

Many of the recent vociferous, ugly public skirmishes wind up in interminable ad hoc blue ribbon task force committees composed of stakeholders. Once in courtrooms, the real issues get confused in the layperson’s mind by the labyrinth of regulatory edicts, entitlement budgets, legitimate biological analyses for protectionist NGO's -- leading to endless governmental hearing rooms and adjudication proceedings.

Roger Butow's 'co-conspirator' Mike Hazzard at San Mateo Creek,
on the Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Southern California.

Portrayed in the media as “Humans vs. Nature,” winner-take-all, zero-sum games, many residents are unaware of the nexus between preservation and restoration of eco-systems for endangered species and improved safe aquatic environs for everyone.

A recent decision by NOAA’s National Marines Fisheries Service (NMFS) due to years of lobbying by the Clean Water Now! Coalition provides a window into how these long-term sieges of regulatory overseers can at times succeed. This particular example of the dynamics that grass roots NGO's and individuals patiently employed will assure future generations of California’s natural resources the rightful heritage they and their children deserve.

CWN!C is a watershed protection group focused upon reversing the water quality impairments that affect aquatic and riparian biota. In the case of Aliso Creek, a renowned polluted watercourse rife with the “toxic soup” of urban runoff, we find the formal recognition in February of last year (2009); better late than never. The NMFS' formal recognition and listing of the creek as one of Southern California’s Distinct Population Segments for the federally endangered Steelhead Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) was quite fortuitous, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Illegal dumping, past and present, of contaminants like PCB upstream of spawning or migratory habitat spanning decades, haunt this and many of California’s other tributaries and watersheds.

There are pesticides and herbicides now outlawed that keep showing up in testing, albeit in minor traces. Increasing urbanization continues on an upward spiral, a constant drip feed of teratogenic (birth defects), mutagenic (mutants) and carcinogenic substances unabated through urban runoff, and of course sensitive biomarker aquatics feel these effects first... They are the canaries in the coalmines (streams).

It should also be understood that one effect, the radical reduction of population numbers due to toxicity, will have the ultimate outcome of less genetic diversity and lay the groundwork for extirpation in an isolated watercourse, sometimes at alarmingly accelerated, entropic rates. Biomagnification [1], a complex series of food chain processes, will cascade the negative effects, amplifying the toxins' adverse impacts.

Frustrated by zero change in Aliso Creek for over 10 years, several fellow enviros joined my tight bro’ Mike Hazzard, and together we formed a working group in 2008; the Friends of the Aliso Creek Steelhead [2]. We knew that in order to progress our unselfish agenda, some rudimentary structure was necessary, and planning for success a Fictitious Business Name just in case it took off. So coupled with a website, I created a funky logo to give us that initial presence and minuscule credibility leveraged by our mutual resumés.

As the only watchdog organization to achieve any significant enforcement actions by Cal/EPA within the Aliso Creek Watershed, CWN!C knew that water quality and habitat monitoring continued to show degradation and entropy.

Another shot of Mike Hazzard

We just needed to “connect the dots” between the steelhead’s historical presence and the newer water quality prescriptions plus protective habitat restoration and protection regulations.

Many indigenous species populations in the USA have either become decimated or non-existent due to water quality degradation and outright abuse of the federal Clean Water Act. We were confounded by local county jurisdictional denial of steelhead historical presence in Aliso, so we developed a detailed database to support our contention and provided it to NMFS.

Making our attempt even more difficult was a biologically ignorant individual who works for a local PAC, he tried to intervene and convince NOAA that these fish never inhabited this coastal stream. His group is just a sparse, yet very vocal neighborhood association representing their own personal interests and a biased political platform. They falsely portray themselves as more than just a 15-member board. In fact, that board constitutes their entirety.

This individual, we believe, has a private contractual agreement with a waste treatment corporation out of Northern California, and acts as their exclusive local rep. We believe that he has also cut a deal with our traitorous good old boy South Coast Water District, the local water provider. Together as partners, they’d progress a California Water Rights permit allotment that would in essence lower the level to where the fish fry (hatchlings) and other juvenile aquatics couldn’t survive. The young fish get stranded during non-rainy months, run out of high oxygen water and food, plus they can be seen and taken quite easily by aerial raptors (birds of prey) or other predators, such as racoons.

This cabal’s concept was morally reprehensible; greed taking precedent over biological needs. Without a steady base flow, the “regimes” (seasonal flow rates) as we call them, would be disrupted, possibly precluding subsequent restoration attempts.

Courtesy of: Biologist & Principal Carl J. Page
Aquatic Resource Specialists Environmental and Ecological
Consulting Services.

Since Aliso Creek has so much urban runoff (effluent) in it, their strategy was: Why not drain it down, steal some for treatment, cleanse it to reclamation standards, letting the vendor from Northern Cal get a piece (percentage) of every drop in perpetuity? Ironically, the public’s money would pay for the installation and ongoing maintenance costs, not the vendor's. Adding insult to injury, the treatment devices would be purchased FROM this vendor, and probably ongoing monitoring and maintenance performed by the same slobs!

The water district would make money too. They refused to admit what everyone knows: Though urbanized watersheds are effluent dominant or dependent, humans have played God, and by their habits humans have encouraged or created large ecosystems that require more flow than their antecedents. This has been challenged by violators in courtrooms, and the federal judicial mandate is this: The burden is on dischargers of known “point source” pollution, the burden is theirs alone under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) [3] prescriptions, they must reduce or eliminate the toxins before puking them into our streams.

These avaricious morons want an endless reclaimed gravy train, and once installed, a diversion of almost 20% of the creek flow in the estuarial zone about 1.5 miles upstream of the Pacific Ocean; To Hell with the aquatics. These ecologically bankrupt bozos hide behind altruism: Safer water quality discharges means more human recreational opportunities at the beach, but who would speak for the steelhead?

Mike Hazzard at San Mateo Creek, on the Camp
Pendleton Marine Base in Southern California.

SCWD won’t tell the public the truth either: They already have enough landscape (Title 22) water in-house, they just need to upgrade cleansing of the approximate 20+ million gallons per day going through their main facility, the Coastal Treatment Plant which discharges off of Aliso Creek Beach. In fact, much of So Cal’s shortfall of water is directly attributable to these moguls, these warlords of denial as they refuse to reclaim what they’re already in control of, the influent and affluent at their plants.

Hopefully readers understand that metaphor I used regarding Humans vs. Nature: This PAC from South Laguna was a small, uninformed group, boldly trying to help ensure the revenue model and retirement of their board members to the disadvantage to the steelhead. So it isn’t always NGO vs. government, it can involve private fiscal interests masking themselves as public ones.

Presently, our working group has kept SCWD, the vendor and their imbecilic rep at bay for the past two years, locked in battle and complicated permitting paperwork within our California State Water Resources Control Board, Water Rights Division system.

I must unfortunately write that not one other NGO, not the NRDC, not the Sierra Club, not Cal-Trout has lifted a finger, added their voices in objection though implored repeatedly these past two years to do so. Local steelhead specialist George Sutherland of Trout Unlimited did write a letter of concern, so we want to openly thank him for doing something in this column. Just as evil prevails when men of good will do nothing, California’s precious indigenous species suffer due to greed, ignorance and a flaccid NGO engagement.

Regardless, sometimes a fountain pen or the tap of a few computer terminal keys by regulatory overseers can do what threats, cajoling, demands and even sound science cannot. In this case, O. Mykiss also enjoys a more elevated status because Aliso Creek now officially qualifies as an Evolutionary Significant Unit (ESU). It is, after all, a separate species from its cousins, unique to the Mediterranean climate of Southern California and Northern Baja Mexico.

Photo Courtesy: Biologist & Principal Carl J. Page Aquatic Resource Specialists Environmental
and Ecological Consulting Services.

“Anadromous,” it can migrate from salt to fresh (where it spawns) back to salt water during its life cycle. You may know it as the beautiful multi-colored Rainbow Trout, its in-stream resident incarnation. Adapted to the warmer, more ephemeral coastal streams of our area, this opportunistic fish can survive environs with less oxygen than its northerly counterparts. Remarkably, it need not return to the watercourse or estuary where it was born.

If a stream has steelhead in it, then one can assume it’s safe and healthy enough for human immersion. This is what USEPA Clean Water Act guidance deems the finish line, the standard for these types of waters: “Fishable and swimmable.” Aquatics' three primary requirements, low toxicity, low temperature and high dissolved oxygen (DO) content are the parameters biologists have encouraged our state public agencies to honor for optimal water quality objectives and standards. What’s good for the steelhead all over California is therefore actually good for humans too.

Next? For us, the sustaining of our contention regarding O. Mykiss [4] by NMFS will assist us in reversing the distress within this watershed, so every critter, plant AND human is rewarded. Higher water quality standards will be integrated in the Cal/EPA regulatory oversight agencies Basin Plan Objectives. Literally EVERY water-related project will get closer planning scrutiny, and hopefully not require litigation or enforcement action to do so. The trade-off is more federal and state grants or funds are available for restorations of ESA habitats. A major non-profit I respect, Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration (CEMAR), reached out proactively, worked with us on this and now lists Aliso Creek as habitat too[5].

Mike Hazzard holding juvenile steelhead San Mateo
Creek Steelhead Recovery.

For the steelhead it’ll mean eventual restoration and re-colonization, a Southern California native fish given a chance to finally come safely home again. Mike and I know that we may not live to see this to fruition, but it’s like a tree that can take years to bear fruit. You still plant it, and you hope that the light bulb will eventually click on in these profiteers' dullard, simian brains.

Someday, a child will gaze into this living classroom creek with wonder and awe at this amazing survivor, little knowing the arm-twisting, the volunteered time and the cajoling it took to force government to do just do right by this species.

Special thanks to: arsconsulting.org

Roger von Bütow articles on Salem-News.com:

Launched in 2010, Odd Man Out is the creation of Roger von Bütow, a professional environmental consultant. Written exclusively for the Salem-News, it's intended as the next evolutionary step on the path of an eco-warrior.

Roger is a Southern California native who spent his formative years as a racial minority: A blonde-haired, blue-eyed surfer on the mean streets of the LA Harbor area. Running from gangs eventually trained him for his high school and collegiate track and cross-country career. Going to college part-time, disqualified for a student deferment, when his draft notice arrived in a fit of machisimo he joined the USMC in 1965, eventually attached to the 3rd Marine Air Wing.

Once honorably discharged, he resumed his college studies, majoring in philosophy. He dropped out in early 1972 when an opportunity to travel in Europe inexpensively for 6 months was too good to pass up. Upon returning, he and his former wife ended up in Laguna Beach, and though the marriage didn’t last his love of the place is in its 38th year.

Disgusted by chronic sewage spills and toxic urban runoff pollution that triggered constant beach closures in his area, he formed “Clean Water Now!” in 1998. Local surfers, skimmers and divers were pissed off, but there wasn’t a cohesive, unified and aggressive group response, zero leadership or activism facilitated by the Surfrider Foundation or Sierra Club regarding water quality impairment issues. You can write to Roger at: rogerbutow@mac.com


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Roger von Bütow March 1, 2010 5:54 am (Pacific time)

Natalie: Thanks....I got a lot of personal thanks via phone and emails from my eco-brethren, but several were curious why I didn't mention one other fact: The two (2) greatest threats to existing populations, as well as future ones through restorations, are these stream flow allocations and barriers like dams and weirs. These devices are blockages for connectivity. In the case of Aliso Creek, pollution may eventually be abated but there are several drop structures that have kept aquatics isolated (losing genetic diversity) and unable to spawn and forage more widely. Once you add diversions and appropriated withdrawals, you get an "event horizon," that is beyond the aquatics ability to naturally inhabit through its historical life cycle and environs. I'm doing a piece on my infamous TOXIC SOUP TOUR (see my website and go online for media archives) in a month or so, taking a professional photographer John Krill of LAGUNA BEAT for pix, I'll include several of the impossible barriers for readers.

Natalie February 28, 2010 2:54 pm (Pacific time)

As a Californian, can't resist saying 'job well done', Roger.

Roger von Bütow February 28, 2010 4:50 am (Pacific time)

JK: Thanks, I couldn't have done it without several bright lady friends who helped lobby, and of course one of South OC's greatest steelhead field operatives, Mike Hazzard. Mike was a Petty Officer in the Navy, but I bet he's humped more hills and canyons in Camp Pendleton than those of us who were trained and stationed there. He's worked closely with Trout Unlimited, Cal Fish and Game, you name 'em, he knows this fish in its natural environs as well as anyone. It was some of his work that stopped the crappy 241 Toll Road that our County wanted in the San Onofre Beach Area, he helped advise the initial SAVE TRESTLES organization. FYI: Surfrider Foundation takes 100% credit, but they came in way late in the battle. It was the grass roots men and women who did all of the heavy lifting-----Just like dirt-pounding 0300's (grunts) do in the USMC. It's the boots on the ground, front line folks that get 'er done! This is the key element that eluded me for years. You need help, nothing much gets done in ecological confrontations by just one person but in collaborations. The players needn't not be the big heavyweight non-profits---Many times, if you've read my articles, these high profile NGOs are off litigating the big moneymaking stuff so they can sustain bloated staff budgets. Not one single enforcement action, not one improvement I've ever been part of was helped by these large non-profit corporations. That's why CWN! is so proud, we are the Little Engine That Can!

Jeff Kaye~ February 27, 2010 12:19 pm (Pacific time)

Nice work, Roger and "co-conspirators"! I thank you, the waters thank you, and most of all, the trout thank you. It will be an amazing thing indeed, should you succeed in making Aliso Creek once more a sustainable fishery, and a place where folks won't fear to dip their toe in the water.

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