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Southern California Steelhead Story Reveals Tensions Between Man and Nature

Postcard of steelhead fisherman on San Gabriel River, April, 1910 | Courtesy of John G. Tomlinson, Jr.

To the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) and other river advocates, the steelhead is the veritable "canary in the coal mine" whose presence in the rivers means a healthy ecosystem. When one steelhead was spotted at the newly restored Malibu Lagoon last May, California State Parks celebrated by widely announcing the sighting. Its presence in the lagoon is thought to cement the choices made during the controversial project.

But the steelhead's role as a "canary" doesn't end there. It seems the species' history in Los Angeles can also provide valuable lessons to Angelenos. "Against the Currents: The Unlikely Story of the Southern California Steelhead" written by John G. Tomlinson, Jr. with the help of the Aquarium of the Pacific, sheds light to ongoing tensions between commerce and nature when it comes to the Los Angeles River and other waterways in the region.

The slim book is ostensibly about the waxing and waning of the steelhead population in Southern California, but underlying that story is one of man-made developments that have unduly harmed the natural environment. It turns out that the very same floods that dumped six to ten inches of rain in just fifteen hours also ferried steelhead up the river to its spawning grounds. Though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might have solved one human problem by concretizing the river and adding dams to key portions of Southern California's waterways, it also caused additional stress to an already challenging steelhead reproduction process.

Life cycle of a steelhead (Click to enlarge) | Courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific
Life cycle of a steelhead | Courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific

Even before that, exponential growth in Los Angeles catalyzed an influx of industry along the river, particularly breweries, steel industries, and meat processing plants, which gave no thought to dumping their waste in the convenient river. Even Southern California's iconic orange groves, which now seem idyllic in postcards, added to the groundwater contamination.

Tomlinson also introduces readers to fascinating characters in Los Angeles, who harbored contradictory positions when it comes to their approach to nature depending on the situation. Charles Frederick Holder, one of Southern California's foremost naturalists, was a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. He was a zoologist and trustee at Pasadena's Throop Academy, a precursor to Cal Tech. He wrote rhapsodically about the abundance of trout in the Arroyo Seco. Yet, despite his enthusiasm for nature, he still championed the construction of the Rose Bowl, which disturbed the natural setting of the Arroyo Seco.

Then, there's Henry O'Melveny, a lawyer with a passion for hunting and fishing. His Creel Club was a fishing group that read like a who's who of Los Angeles. His group included judges, governors, and even a Huntington. The Los Angeles Times covered their regular fishing trips around the Southland in extreme detail.

Though O'Melveny loved the outdoors, ironically, his work in real estate development companies and major industries helped erode the environment he so loved. For example, the Ice House in Azusa, incorporated by O'Melveny, used water pumped eight miles up the San Gabriel River to power the turbines.

Henry O'Melveny was an advocate for better roads along the San Gabriel Canyon. Although the river got the better of the automobile in this circa 1915 photo, graded roads were part of the canyon landscape before 1930 | Courtesy of John G. Tomlinson, Jr.
Henry O'Melveny was an advocate for better roads along the San Gabriel Canyon. Although the river got the better of the automobile in this circa 1915 photo, graded roads were part of the canyon landscape before 1930 | Courtesy of John G. Tomlinson, Jr.

The stories in Tomlinson's book may have taken place over a century ago, but the same crucial decisions affect Angelenos today. The question is even more pressing now that a $1 billion investment in the river is looming. Does the city take advantage of the river's prominence and develop it to its fullest potential? Will those developments benefit not only human residents, but zoological and botanical as well? Though most of us could claim to be advocates for nature, do we personally also take steps to ensure the sustainability of our lifestyle in Los Angeles?

As the book shows, often the consequences of human actions do not manifest themselves until years or decades down the road. It was human activity that put undue pressure on the steelhead population, ongoing human efforts now are trying to rectify those mistakes.

We now know more than we did decades ago about the consequences of human development on natural environments. There are still difficult decisions to make, not the least of which is balancing economic benefits to natural interests, but one can hope the story of the steelhead will be a useful reminder for those working along the river.

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