George Sutherland and Southern California steelhead trout have one thing in common.
They are persistent.
The fish – called a steelhead in the ocean and a rainbow trout in freshwater – have had their habitat in Southern California destroyed since their heyday in the 1930s, when fishermen would stand at the mouth of coastal rivers and catch thousands as they navigated their way upstream to spawn.
Then came California's post-World War II building boom when the once-vibrant rivers were transformed into concrete flood control channels, and the fish became endangered.
Yet despite the destruction of their habitat, some of the trout still try to make it back to inland waterways, with one steelhead even being spotted earlier this year in Orange County's Trabuco Creek.
But today it’s a much tougher haul for a steelhead to make it back up the river and into the Santa Ana mountains. The concrete channels don’t leave much room for swimming upstream, and at some points the vertical angles are steeper than 60 degrees.
Too much for a trout.
Enter Sutherland, who has been a leading activist in South County for years on behalf of the fishing advocacy group Trout Unlimited.
He’s set out to build fish ladders that will give the trout a chance to do what they were born to do.
After eight years of working with nearby cities and water districts along with the county and the state, Sutherland is ecstatic that he’s finally put together a coalition that can build two sets of ladders along Trabuco Creek.
Now he must find somebody to own them once they are built.
Yet that seems to be about as easy as a steelhead making it’s way up the concrete channels.
In conservative Orange County, there’s a nervousness among local elected officials when there’s talk about saving habitat. Many see it an expensive endeavor that can’t be accurately estimated and an open door for state resource agencies to issue draconian fines and put limits on development.
Last month, Sutherland went to the Orange County Board of Supervisors and pleaded publicly for the county to step up and accept the donation of fish ladders. Under the state grants that Sutherland has assembled, a public agency must agree to take over ownership of the ladders, he told supervisors.
“We’re asking for no money,” Sutherland told supervisors.
Yet in Orange County, many local elected officials see state regulatory agencies as tricky, and often expensive, partners.
“We’re very cautious,” said Supervisor Pat Bates, who has worked as a liason between local city officials and the state agencies on the issue.
Bates said that with many jurisdictions cutting budgets, there’s concern about adding annual maintenance costs for things like ladder upkeep (which Sutherland figures at about $17,000 annually) as well as liability exposure on endangered species issues.
Bates suggests that state officials offer some kind of good Samaritan assurances to local officials ensuring that openness to conservation efforts doesn’t leave local jurisdictions at risk for future fines.
“Government should facilitate and not just penalize,” Bates said.
State fish and game officials could not speak to the issues involved with steelehead restoration efforts because area specialists were not available before deadline.
Bates said she wants current negotiations on the river restoration project to concentrate on alleviating local budget concerns. She hopes it can usher in greater support for conservation among local elected officials.
“It’s a great way to start a bipartisan movement on the environment and facilitate the human spirit to do the right thing,” Bates said. "We’ve gotten away from that to this constant polarization.”
Until then, Sutherland said he’ll keep pushing all levels of government to work together to benefit the average citizen in Orange County and fix the Trabuco Creek.
Standing next to an eroded creek bed, cut out by fast water flows from the concrete channel, Sutherland said there’s no time to waste.
He’s fixed on doing his part, because the stakes and costs are high.
“We know that if we manage the stream for the habitat,” Sutherland said, “it will be better for everything that lives there, including humans.”