Malibu’s grand dam turns eighty

The Rindge Dam, Feb. 18, 1969. Photo courtesy of Louis Busch

The Rindge Dam of Malibu Creek enters its eighth decade swirling in history and debate.

By Susan Reines/Special to The Malibu Times

Rich with local history and surrounded by controversy, Malibu’s Rindge Dam turns 80 this fall. The 100-foot dam that stretches across Malibu Creek once piped water to the homes and fields of two of Malibu’s earliest settler families, the marriage-linked Rindge and Adamson families. There is still a bronze tag on a valve near the Adamson House that reads, “dam water.”

It has been 40 years since the dam functioned as an irrigation system, but local history buffs say the enormous concrete and steel structure still has great cultural importance.

“The Rindge Dam really is the engineering marvel of the Santa Monica Mountains recreation area,” said Ronald Rindge, grandson of May Rindge, who directed the dam’s construction from 1924 to 1926. “The Santa Monica Mountains recreation area is the largest urban federal recreation area in the United States, and you have a very rich corridor of historical cultural events in the Malibu Canyon corridor, from the Ventura Freeway to the sea. The Rindge Dam is only one segment of that.”

As the last of many dams of its kind that were constructed as settlers pushed west across the continent, the dam represents European settlers’ emergence in North America.

“The settlement of the United States, the modern settlement, started in the 1600s,” Rindge said in a phone interview. “We all came west over the next 300 years, and during that whole era of two or three hundred years, settling the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, many, many dams were built. Finally the settlement of the United States reached the Pacific Coast, and the Rindge Dam was the last dam built in Los Angeles County.”

The dam also preserves another part of American history that seems to be fading rapidly—the railroad.

Steel supports lining the dam are actually railroad tracks from the original line that ran along the coast. The Rindge family bought a portion of the line because they didn’t want trains going through their property, and they ripped up 240 rails to make the dam.

The Adamson Malibu Water Company sold water pumped from the two 12-inch pipes that come out of the dam until the early 1960s, when storms from 1963 to 1965 broke the pipelines. Revenue from the dam water had already been on the decline for years—down from $3,449 in 1955 to $12 in 1963, according to the company’s records—because the dam was nearly full of silt by the 1960s, and each year there was less room to hold water.

In 1967, the Malibu Water Company got permission from the government to classify the dam as unoperational. Soon after, it completely filled with silt.

Longtime Malibu resident Louis Busch said the dam’s connection with the Rindges and Adamsons makes it worthy of preservation.

The Adamson House is a protected state and national historic site, and Busch said the valve outside the house that reads “dam water” makes the dam part of the historic site.

“The dam was built for the house,” he said. “That dam is an integral part of the historical home, the Adamson Home.”

Busch and Rindge have been two of the dam’s cheerleaders in a decades-long debate with environmentalists over whether the dam is responsible for the decline of steelhead trout in Malibu Creek. Officials from the State Parks Department and environmental groups have lobbied for the dam’s removal, saying the endangered steelhead used to live above the dam and are being blocked from its habitat.

Rindge, Busch and others say, however, that steelhead thrived in Malibu Creek until the 1960s—40 years after the dam’s construction—and only began to die when the Las Virgenes wastewater plant started dumping more and more impure water into Malibu Creek.

There has also been debate over whether the fish are actually native to the creek and whether they could, even if the dam were not there, migrate past a 10-foot waterfall that used to flow upstream from the dam before its construction.

The Army Corps of Engineers is currently carrying out a multi-million dollar study to determine whether removing the dam would restore fish habitat. It would cost an estimated $40 million to dismantle it.

The County Historical Landmarks and Records Commission designated the dam a California Point of Historical Interest in 1993, when a five-person committee including Rindge and Busch applied for historical status. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has not accepted the commission’s recommendation, however, a failure Busch and Rindge attribute to pressure from state officials who want the dam removed.

Zev Yaroslavsky, county supervisor of Malibu’s district, did not return calls asking whether he would vote to preserve the Rindge Dam.