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Flame Mignon: Survivors mourn the loss of last week's sacrificial cow.


Watsonville Fish Kill

Thousands of fish that used to live in CASSERLY CREEK, a waterway near the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, went belly up to the GREAT CREEK IN THE SKY sometime around Sept. 1. The disturbing part is, no one yet knows why.

"There used to be tons of fish in there," says LAKE SACHTLEBE, who lives about a block away from the creek. "When I went down there yesterday, all the fish were dead." Lake discovered the fish kill while walking his dog SHEILA, who promptly ran down to the stream and drank from it. He called his dog back from the creek and noticed someone from the CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME standing with a couple of "scientist types" across the stream. "I asked them, ‘What's going on?' and they said, ‘We're testing it, we have some theories.'"

When he asked how he could find out what happened, Sachtlebe says the men across the water quietly conferred with one another before telling him it was an interdepartmental matter and there's no way he can find out about it.

Nüz contacted TROY SWAUGER at Fish and Game, who at first told us that he had no idea what happened, but that "it's not unusual to have fish kills."

Two days later, Swauger called back with details.

"The fish kill at Casserly Creek spans over a length of about three miles," says Swauger. "Our warden did not make a count, but clearly everything in the creek had been killed--thousands of fish--trout, steelhead, carp, suckers--basically everything that's in that particular waterway."

Swauger says the Fish and Game warden took samples of the water and the fish and sent them off to Sacramento, where they would be analyzed by Fish and Game's OFFICE OF SPILL PREVENTION AND RESPONSE. As of presstime, local Fish and Game officials were still awaiting the results of those tests.

"When we are finished with the investigation," says Swauger, "we will file a formal complaint with the DA's office, and if they feel charges are appropriate, they will file charges."

Adds Swauger, "We should be able to find out who the responsible party is."

Meanwhile, the COUNTY AGRICULTURAL COMMISSION, whose pesticide-use deputy was also on the scene, is testing soil and water samples from the creek and a nearby field that had been recently fumigated.

The fumigant, says County Agricultural Commissioner MARYLOU NICOLETTI, "is only applied via drip irrigation lines, that's how it gets into the ground," further specifying the use of nematicides (for killing worms) and fungicides (for killing fungi) at this particular site.

"Any action that we take, if we would take any disciplinary action against a grower," says Nicoletti, "would depend upon if we find definitive evidence--pesticide in fish or samples we have. We would consider some kind of penalty action; we take this kind of thing very seriously."

Asked if the water might be harmful to other animals, or, for that matter, to humans, Nicoletti passed the buck to the COUNTY OFFICE OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH.

"I think that was what [County Environmental Health] folks were doing out there," says Nicoletti. "I think he took pH samples; they would have to give you more info about that." Nüz got Environmental Health Water Resources Program Coordinator JOHN RICKER on the phone, who said they tested the water for oxygen depletion--often a cause of fish kills, which itself is sometimes caused by a release of nutrients or even sewage into a stream. The algae then blooms and sucks up all the oxygen, effectively drowning the fish.

"We did some field testing back there," says Ricker. "We were looking at dissolved oxygen, conductivity and pH and didn't find any indication that it was oxygen depletion."

Ricker says that Fish and Game has taken the lead on the matter, but that so far there is no indication that the water is dangerous to people.

"If there was a release of an agricultural chemical," says Ricker, "those are pretty short-lived chemicals. That water is also not known to be a drinking water source or recreational water either, and those are things we look at as far as whether we would post it as unsafe or not."

Ricker says Environmental Health has not conducted tests for particular chemicals--that would be Fish and Game's job. Swauger from Fish and Game estimates the investigation will take another two or three weeks before the results are passed on to the DA's office, who will then be in charge of deciding what information is public and what information is sensitive to the ongoing investigation.

In the meantime, Sachtlebe says there haven't been any warning signs posted along the creek since the kill. But until Sachtlebe hears otherwise, Sheila the dog will have to find another creek in which to play.

Santa Cruz Cow Roast

In the late evening hours of Saturday, Sept. 3, in Block Rock City, Nev., a reported group of 40,000 people gathered to watch a 50-foot wooden effigy of a man go up in flames. In the wee morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 4, in Santa Cruz, Calif., a group of about 20 people looked on as another group of 15 completely destroyed, and then burned, a 10-foot papier-måché cow. Coincidence? Probably.

The cow was built by artist KIRBY SCUDDER, who has led the KOW HAUS project out at the Salz Tannery site in order to raise awareness of its conversion from a Tannery to an arts center. One of the cows lived in front of WORMY'S coffee cart on Pacific Avenue by day and inside Logos at night; it was to be raffled off in an effort to raise money for SALLY CLARK, a local artist suffering from brain tumors, but it was accidentally left outside on a Saturday night.

Scudder, who is also a director of the SANTA CRUZ INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY ARTS, was not surprised that something happened, but he's disheartened by how far it all went: The cow was dragged to the corner of Cathcart and Pacific, beaten, decapitated and burned.

The weird thing is, Scudder has encountered the "burn it" impulse before with his BLUE MA-QUETTE, a 1/100th scale model of downtown he built last year. While soliciting recommendations of what to do with the project after the installation was over, Scudder often got recommendations to burn it.

"I must have heard that at least three dozen times: ‘We should burn the thing,'" recalls Scudder. Now, with Kow Haus, "I'm not even done with the project and people want to tear it apart. I think there's some built-in human desire to destroy things. I don't know what it is--maybe it's because of the scale of it."

While his initial reaction was to discontinue public art projects, he's since changed his mind.

"There's got to be a way to co-exist in this world with that other portion that wants to destroy everything," says Scudder. "Why should our culture be one that you have to be intimidated by that element in order to do these types of things?"

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From the September 14-21, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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