Debris from Matilija slide threatens trout migration
By Zeke Barlow,
March 3, 2007
With its cool waters shaded by overhanging oaks, the north fork of
Matilija Creek is prime habitat for the endangered steelhead trout.
Environmentalists say the creek that cuts through the mountains north of
Ojai is one of the cleanest, best watersheds for the trout in Southern
The area is also rich with sandstone, a place where a mine has operated
since the early 1900s, excavating rock used to stop erosion and build
roads around Ventura County.
But a year ago, when a rock slide from Mosler Rock Ojai Quarry tossed
massive 4-ton boulders into the creek, the area that is great for mining
became not so good for steelhead. The slide effectively choked the creek
so that steelhead couldn't migrate upstream to some of the best habitat
for the fish.
For the past few months, a trio of steelhead advocates have been asking a
handful of agencies to have the boulders cleared from the creek so the
fish can access the upper watershed.
Now, one year and a season of steelhead migration later, the boulders
might be removed. Everyone involved in a meeting planned next week hopes
to have the issue cleared up soon, but the last few months have been a
long haul of bureaucracy, miscommunication and frustration.
And with an unstable rock face after decades of dangerous mining, the
chance of another blockage in the creek appears likely.
The issue sticks in the craw of environmentalists because so much money
has been spent on protecting the Ventura River, of which Matilija Creek
is a tributary. Casitas Water District built an $8 million fish ladder so
the fish can move around the Robles Diversion into the waters upstream.
Matilija Dam is slated to come down in coming years at a price tag of
more than $150 million.
"When you talk about how much public money is going into the whole
watershed and then one private company is negating that effect, something
is not right," said Ben Pitterle, director of the watershed program
for Santa Barbara Channel Keepers.
Quarry owner Larry Mosler believes that he's done what the local, state
and federal regulatory agencies told him to do, pulling out some of the
boulders from the creek.
Mosler bought the quarry two years ago and said the way the mine has
operated for years before caused an unstable cliff that has resulted in a
series of slides. The previous owner mined from the bottom of the rock
face, causing massive rocks to topple down from above, he said.
Mosler said he's trying to mine from the top of the mountain to try to
alleviate some of the issues. But slides still happen.
In September, he shored up the hillside that slid into the creek,
removing a small dam that backed up the water flow. He said he thought
that he needed the California Department of Fish and Game to see his
progress before moving forward with taking the larger boulders out a
process that involves using a crane.
But Natasha Lohmus, an environmental scientist with Fish and Game, said
that Mosler had all the needed permits by fall and that the rocks could
have been cleared out before the winter, when the steelhead migrate.
"I would have loved to have seen more progress, but sometimes it
doesn't move that fast," Lohmus said. "I want that path cleared
so the fish can migrate through to their best spawning ground."
Paul Jenkin with the Matilija Coalition filed a complaint with the county
against Mosler in December, saying he had not done enough to clean up the
rocks in the creek.
Lohmus said there must have been some miscommunication between what she
said and Mosler understood. At next week's meeting, she intends to tell
him exactly what he needs to do, and Mosler said he'll comply with
whatever orders he's given, although he believes that the boulders
stabilize the banks of the creek.
"I pulled out the boulders that I thought needed to come out,"
He can't start removing more rocks until May, when the spawning season
has passed and the water level has gone down. A meeting next week is
supposed to address the particulars of cleaning up the creek.
But with more than 7 million tons of rock still to be mined on the
unstable hillside, there's a good chance that all the players will find
themselves at this place again.