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Little fish causes big headache

Posted: March 8, 2014 10:02 p.m.
Updated: March 8, 2014 10:02 p.m.

A critter the size of a goldfish has wiggled its way into a controversy that has turned off some canyon residents’ tap water, halted bulldozers and periodically flooded a road in the Santa Clarita Valley.

The endangered unarmored threespine stickleback is a minnow-sized fish that has managed to survive 10,000 years, since the time glaciers melted during the last ice age.
It lives in only one place in the world — the Santa Clarita Valley — in four local creeks. One of them is Bouquet Creek.

In 2004, after pressure from environmentalists, officials at the U.S. Forest Service took steps to protect the stickleback’s home in Bouquet Creek. The canyon falls mostly within Angeles National Forest land, so USFS officials followed federal guidelines for the protection of endangered critters and preserved the stickleback’s habitat by leaving the creek undisturbed.

Doing nothing may have saved the home of the unarmored threespine stickleback, but it also halted county work crews that routinely cleared the Bouquet Creek bed where the fish lives.

“USFS concerns were centered on the loss of habitat, although not permanent,” said Bob Spencer, chief of public affairs for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. Federal permits required for work to be done in the creek “were aimed at the entire streambed habitat,” he said in an email.

“They would just go in there and clean the culverts, and they would do it routinely,” longtime Bouquet Canyon resident Chase Unruh recalled in an interview last week.

Without the annual cleaning, the creek bed began to silt up. That process was accelerated when the Buckweed Fire raged through the area in 2007, destroying vegetation and sending debris and sediment pouring into the creek.

By now, the creek bed is nearly level with Bouquet Canyon Road in places, and when water flows down the creek in any significant volume, it floods the road.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has reduced flow from the dam at the top of the canyon to a trickle, concerned about accidents on the flooded road.

And that has left many residents downstream with inadequate water for their homes — and in some cases with no water at all.

Concerned for the well-being of Bouquet Canyon residents, Los Angeles County supervisors on Feb. 25 approved a declaration of local emergency aimed at allowing agencies to bypass costly permits needed to clean up the creek bed.

The move promised to enable the “county to work with state and federal agencies to help resolve the crisis in Bouquet Canyon and restore the flood-carrying capacity of Bouquet Canyon Creek,” Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who represents the Santa Clarita Valley and introduced the motion, wrote in a statement shortly after the emergency declaration.

U.S. Forest Service officials contacted via phone calls and email during several days last week did not respond to questions from The Signal about the possibility of cleaning out the creek bed so water can be restored to Bouquet Canyon residents.

“The Forest Service has been very active in advocating for a resolution,” said Linda Purpose, spokeswoman for the United Water Conservation District. The district represents Ventura County farming interests that receive water from the Santa Clara River, including its tributary Bouquet Creek.

“They have not been willing to continue to deal with the situation on an emergency basis because they were working to motivate (Public Works) to develop a feasible plan to effectively solve the problem, rather than a series of temporary solutions,” Purpose wrote in an email to The Signal.

Unruh is not so sure about a resolution.

“It looks like it’s going sideways,” he said last week. “Give me a double-bladed truck and one guy on the road with a cell phone to tell when cars are coming, and I’ll clear the creek bed and fix the problem in a day.”


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