Tour exposes challenges of preserving Malibu watershed

High atop Piuma Road looking down on Rindge Dam, Jim Edmondson, California manager for CalTrout, explains the history and status of endangered steelhead trout in Malibu Creek during a tour of the Malibu Creek Watershed on Saturday. Photo courtesy of David Pritchett

A tour of the Malibu Creek watershed rehashes challenges associated with preserving natural resources of the Malibu creek and lagoon in the face of expanding development.

By P.G. O’Malley/Special to The Malibu Times

City of Malibu Grant Coordinator Barbara Cameron, Planning Commissioner Carol Randall and Public Safety Commissioner Ryan Embree were among a hundred residents and activists who spent Saturday exploring the Malibu Creek watershed.

Dubbed “The Malibu Creek Watershed Tour 2004-from the Headwaters to the Lagoon,” the outing was sponsored by the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains in conjunction with the Malibu Creek Watershed Advisory Council. And although the idea was to present a nonpartisan view of the watershed, much of the day was spent rehashing challenges associated with preserving the natural resources of Malibu creek and lagoon in the face of continually expanding development.

Tour organizer Melina Watts, Malibu Creek Watershed coordinator for the Resource Conservation District, told the group, “We need everybody’s help to make this work.” And the name of the game, for the day at least, was the need for partnership among the various communities that impact the creek and nongovernmental agencies concerned with its welfare. Dennis Washburn, chair of the watershed council and veteran Calabasas city councilmember, called the tour “a chance for the people in the watershed to meet other partners and make new contacts and alliances.”

Malibu Creek, which begins as Las Virgenes Creek on the former Ahmanson Ranch property north of the Ventura Freeway, is the only stream that runs completely through the Santa Monica Mountains and drains the landscape that includes the cities of Thousand Oaks, Agoura Hills and Calabasas, before it empties into the ocean at Malibu.

The tour began in Malibu, where the city hosted a series of presentations from various organizations active in the watershed, and immediately proceeded to Malibu Lagoon where longtime state parks ecologist Suzanne Goode spoke about the history of the lagoon, which is one of two coastal wetlands remaining in Los Angeles County.

Goode told the group that the wetlands the lagoon is famous for once extended into what is today Malibu’s Civic Center and the lagoon itself was once larger. Over the years it has been used as a Caltrans dumping ground for mud and debris scraped off Pacific Coast Highway and was one time filled in for ball fields.

From the lagoon the tour moved inland to an overlook on Piuma Road for a spectacular view of Malibu Creek and a highly partisan presentation from CalTrout about Rindge Dam. The dam, which is two-and a-half miles upstream from Malibu, was built between 1924 and 1926 by the Rindge-Adamson family to store water and irrigate crops. The structure has long been filled with silt, and CalTrout is among a number of groups that have argued for its removal to facilitate the survival of steelhead trout that are native to Malibu Creek. (Critics who oppose removal of the dam say that to spend more than $40 million to remove it would be a folly, and that the trout would not survive in the upper watershed because of the high water temperatures, caused by effluent released into the creek by the Tapia wastewater recycling plant.)

A representative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is currently engaged in an 18-month study that will recommend a number of alternatives for the dam, reminded the group the dam is also considered a valuable cultural landmark, and the corps was studying the socio-economics of removing the dam, which includes tons of sand advocates of removing the dam argue could be put to better use on Malibu’s beaches.

The tour continued at the Tapia wastewater recycling plant operated by the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District in Malibu Canyon where conservation manager Dr. Randall Orton presented a history of the operation, including its decision, which he called a landmark back in the 1980s, to implement a three-step process of treating sewage. The plant currently handles wastewater from some 80,000 residents of the upper Malibu Creek Watershed, and has been the target of activists because it is permitted to dispose of the treated water in Malibu Creek.

During his presentation, Orton, responding to a recent Los Angeles Times article about stream nutrients, told the group that Tapia “is the solution for 99 percent of the nutrients” that are channeled to the facility “every time someone in the upper watershed flushes a toilet or does a load of laundry.”

Then it was on to Ahmanson Ranch where Assemblymember Fran Pavley told participants they had had “a unique opportunity to visualize what a watershed looks like.” Pavley emphasized that the health of the lower watershed in Malibu depended in large part on what goes on in the upper communities.

Malibu residents Efrom Fader and Patt Healey also joined in the tour. Once back in Malibu, city staff member Cameron echoed the theme of the day, “It’s good when you have partners in a watershed.”