With the aim of restoring the habitat of the southern steelhead trout, officials from the state parks department and local environmentalists are stepping up their efforts to dismantle Rindge Dam, the cause, they say, for the dwindling population of the trout in Malibu Creek.
But as they have all along, proponents of taking the dam down are meeting with the resistance of Ron Rindge, for whose grandmother, May, the dam is named and who is adamantly opposed to its removal. Residents of Serra Retreat are also skeptical about the proposal, and they question whether the dam’s demolition could even aid in the recovery of the trout, listed as an endangered species in 1997.
A number of government agencies and environmental groups, including those participating in a meeting convened by the Sierra Club last week, say the 100-foot-tall dam threatens the restoration of the southern steelhead because, they contend, it blocks the trout’s migration to spawning and rearing areas upstream.
Each winter, the steelhead, a close relative of the Pacific salmon, return to the creek to spawn. The adults lay their eggs on the creek bottom, and the hatched trout mature in the creek and lagoon before entering the ocean.
At last week’s meeting, Suzanne Goode of the state parks department and Sean Manion of the Malibu Steelhead Task Force, along with leaders of the local Sierra Club chapter, sought to build public support for the removal of the dam. Goode also announced plans for a state parks department-sponsored feasibility study for removing the dam.
“Taking it down is an idea whose time has come,” she said.
Goode said the study will cost approximately $1.5 million and will also explore options other than the dam’s dismantling for improving the trout’s migration.
The dam, decertified in the 1960s, does not hold back any water, according to environmentalists. If it were removed, no additional water would flow through the creek. The dam is filled with approximately 1 million cubic yards of sediment that Goode says should have flowed naturally to the ocean. Holding it back may have contributed to the erosion at Las Tunas Beach, she said.
If, as a result of the study, the parks department determines the dam should be removed, the silt would probably first be hauled out by truck. Alternatively, the dam could be notched five feet each year, allowing the sediment to slowly seep out and flow to the ocean.
Those leading the discussion said the dam’s dismantling would not be all that unusual because communities across the nation are working to remove dams from local waterways.
“The whole issue of dam decommissioning has taken off like a virus,” said Owen Landers, head of the Berkeley-based Natural Rivers Network. Landers said people living downstream from the dam face conditions that are more dangerous than would exist if it were removed. He said the dam, the structural integrity of which has not been inspected since the 1960s, could be toppled by an earthquake, and the sediment it is holding back could flood the creek.
But Landers and the others found themselves facing a skeptical audience that had come to learn about the efforts to take the dam down.
Bernie Resnick, longtime resident of Serra Retreat, questioned whether the dam actually caused the reduction in the trout’s population. He said the fish used to wash up on his front yard during heavy winter storms. But on the four occasions when the creek overflowed since 1968, no trout have washed up out of the creek. He guessed that a growing population inland and their use of herbicides are to be blamed for the steelhead’s decline.
“Every time it rains, the herbicide washes into the creek,” he said.
Other residents pointed out that the steelhead are declining up and down the state of California, not just in Malibu. And effluent from the Tapia Sewage Treatment plant was also identified as a potential cause for the habitat’s fragility.
Manion said, “It’s hard to put a degree on what the cause [for the dwindling population] is, but there’s no question that the dam is a major cause.”
Ron Rindge did not attend the meeting, but he prepared a memo that a friend distributed to those in attendance.
In the memo, Rindge asserted, as he has in the past, that no evidence exists that the steelhead migrated much farther from the site of the dam because of a 10-foot waterfall just north of there. He also said the trout thrived in the creek downstream for more than 35 years after the dam was built.
Rindge also suggested in the memo, as he had previously, the dam’s reservoir be emptied of sediment and the dam be reactivated for flood control purposes.
But Goode said heavy rains and flooding are natural, and the mud and nutrients washed down during heavy rainstorms should flow into the ocean.
“It might not be good if you live in a flood zone, but it’s good for the ecosystem,” she said.
Rindge also appealed to history as a reason to keep the dam. Goode had a response for that argument, as well.
“The importance of the steelhead that have been around for millions of years … is a little more important than maintaining an historic structure that is 70 years old.”
The parks department is actively seeking the funding to perform the feasibility study and, with the help of Sierra Club and other environmental groups, is hoping to raise some of the money privately.