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Fish Out of Water

DA gives steelhead and salmon a reprieve from the water district's decision to let Los Gatos Creek run dry

By Cecily Barnes

LAST WEDNESDAY, a dozen rubber-booted biologists, nets in hand, tromped through Los Gatos Creek scooping out hundreds of fish, including baby steelhead and salmon. The effort was reported on the nightly news as a heroic rescue operation, waged by the Santa Clara Valley Water District to protect the stream's fish population.

But some critics--including the county's top law enforcement agency--blame the water district's greed for causing the crisis in the first place.

The fish rescue was mounted because the water district shut the floodgate which allows more than a million gallons of water to spill out of the Vasona Reservoir and down Los Gatos Creek every day.

District spokesman Mike DiMarco says that rather than "wasting" the water by letting it wash out to the San Francisco Bay, board members voted to hoard it in the reservoir. In the event of a drought, the water would then be available so that people's toilets and faucets would still flush and flow.

Before turning the creek into a dry ditch, however, DiMarco sent out the team of field scientists, insisting that the district cares about wildlife.

"We're extremely proud of our fish population," DiMarco said. So proud that he invited photographers, reporters and news anchors to watch fish being shocked, bagged and relocated last Wednesday.

But moments before the conservation celebration concluded, the county District Attorney's office butted in.

Deputy District Attorney Will Richmond walked down to the creek at 1:30pm and told DiMarco to reopen the floodgates, or he'd see him in court. On Friday morning, the brook bubbled again, only with many fewer fish.

Richmond says the district's decision violates codes set down by the State Department of Fish and Game, which prohibits drying up streams where fish live--even if there is a plan in place to relocate them.

Bob Gross, vice president of the district's board of directors, did not protest the DA's decision. In fact, contradicting district spokesman DiMarco, Gross says water used to keep the county's wildlife alive is not a waste at all.

"The amount of water we're outing to that stream for wildlife habitat is minimal compared to what it could do for the community," Gross said during a phone interview the morning the floodgate was reopened. "That is one of our last great riparian areas and we have to do everything we can to conserve it. I'm very, very disturbed that we just so brutally went at it."

Water district personnel also acknowledge that many fish, especially the little ones, die in rescue operations.

"There's going to be mortality," said fishery biologist David Salsbery, before the district attorney intervened. "There are thousands of fish out there, but I don't expect we'll be able to recover the smaller fish."

Creekside residents say this isn't the first time water has been sucked out of the creek to the detriment of wildlife. When salmon swam up Los Gatos Creek to Willow Glen to spawn last Christmas, Frank Cucuzza and his wife, Margaret Newbold, squatted beside their creekside home with a camcorder and watched lady fish build their nests and lay their eggs. Soon after, excited male salmon wriggled upstream to fertilize the eggs. After that, all that was left to do was wait--about 60 days.

"We were so excited to see the eggs hatch and see the little baby salmon," Newbold says. "We went down and checked every day."

But on Dec. 17, days before the salmon eggs were expected to hatch, water flow to the creek was unexpectedly cut off--just long enough to kill most of the salmon eggs.

Water district officials say the incident was an accident--that the slide gate which supplies water to Los Gatos Creek became plugged with debris.

Critics say it was a convenient time for the accident to happen.

"The water district does not want to manage the water with salmon or other migratory fish in it," Cucuzza says.

Cucuzza suspects that the water district has been trying to rid the stream of fish for some time, so as to avoid keeping up with Fish and Game requirements.

Water district spokesman DiMarco strongly denies these allegations, insisting that it's necessary to let the creek run dry in the summer to save water.

Deputy DA Richmond says he plans to discuss with the district ways to conserve water without killing wildlife.

"I've offered to meet with the water district to determine what can be done to solve the problem," he says.

Mike DiMarco still denies that the district has violated any law, arguing that the code in question is open to interpretation, because many streams, including Los Gatos Creek, often dry up naturally during the summer.

"It has been debated for years and years about how to interpret the code," DiMarco says. "There has never been a clear interpretation."

If an interpretation is not agreed upon soon, Los Gatos Creek may dry up again, leaving unrescued fish flopping and gasping.

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From the July 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro.

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