Background and Overview of the
Topanga Creek Watershed Committee

1998 The Messenger, August 13, 1998
(reprinted with persmission from the Messenger)

By Rosi Dagit

Topanga Creek defines the community of Topanga in many ways. From ridge top to ridge top, it captures everything. The roads follow the creek to get us in and out. Like all the water falling down the slopes, the community is concentrated along the banks of the creek. When the rain falls, the fires burn or the earth quakes, the creek is always center stage.

You'd think with such an important role to play, Topanga Creek would get more respect. Well, during the week of July 27, it finally did. That Monday, the first meeting of the Topanga Watershed Committee was held. Tuesday, the RCDSMM was notified that their grant to study water quality was ranked first in the state. Wednesday the Topanga Canyon Town Council, Chamber of Commerce and Topanga Women's Club decided to fund a Watershed Web page. And on Friday, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Anthony Spina found a year old steelhead trout in the creek. What a week!

First Topanga Watershed Committee Meeting

Monday 27 July was HOT in more ways than one! The mercury soared into the 100's inside the Topanga Community House. Members of the Topanga Canyon Flooplain Management Citizen's Advisory Committee (TCFMCAC) and the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM) were hot about the first official Topanga Watershed Committee meeting. The RCDSMM received a $5,500 grant from the CA Dept. of Conservation to coordinate the logistics of establishing a watershed committee. Finally, the next stage in developing a watershed wide planning effort was about to begin.

The transition from a LA County Board of Supervisors appointed committee focused on flood hazard to a totally volunteer group representing all parts of the community was bound to be risky. In Topanga, everyone has an opinion about everything. Would we be able to find common ground? Was the community ready to take the next step towards integrating the environmental concerns that define canyon living with the real needs of 12,000 human inhabitants?

A watershed committee needs to see the big picture, the interconnectedness of things, and think through the consequences, like ripples spreading on a pool. Repairing a slumping slope which holds up a road is tied to trees which are homes to birds, cool our homes, protect our privacy, and prevent erosion and sedimentation that can smother the creek bed and kill the waterbugs which feed the trout, or add pollutants into the water which run to the beach and make surfers sick.... Hot stuff indeed!

Colin Rundel, David Totheroh and David Gottlieb set up tables and chairs in a circle for 40. Last minute calls managed to round up a few fans. Aerial photos and maps of the watershed were all hung in place. Ice tea and water were waiting to cool the crowd. By 1:45 we were ready....

And then it began to happen. One by one, representatives of all the major stakeholders in Topanga arrived. Over 2/3 of the canyon is publicly owned open space. Both state and national parks were represented. Agency representatives from Caltrans and LA County Dept. of Public Works, the Fire Dept., Regional Planning, the Regional Water Quality Control Board. National Marine Fisheries sent a Steelhead Trout specialist . Representatives of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Assemblyperson Sheila Kuehl came. Most of Topanga's community groups had representation as well: Chamber of Commerce, Firesafe Committee, TASC, TCEP, Women's Club, LA Athletic Club. Most of the RCD staff helped out. Like drops of rain joining to form a stream, each person came to take part in establishing a bigger effort. It was an impressive gathering.

Introductions all around began. It is amazing to see just how many stakeholders there are in such a relatively small community. Invitations were sent to 15 community groups, 9 departments of LA County, 15 other involved agencies and 5 political representatives. Several agencies were unable to make this meeting, but indicated that they will come in the future. The pool of creative talent is definitely there. "We are happy to be a part of this exciting new effort.", said Rus Guiney, newly appointed District Supervisor of the Angeles District of State Parks, summing up the feelings expressed by many.

A capsule review highlighted some interesting tidbits about the watershed. As the third largest drainage into the Santa Monica Bay, the Topanga Wateshed is outlined by fireroads that run the ridges from the Parker Mesa overlook, up to dirt Mulholland, across Summit to Summit, along the Calabasas Motorway above Red Rock, up to Saddle Peak and back down to the coast along the spine between Fernwood and Tuna Canyon. While Topanga still retains much of is biological diversity, only half of the privately owned property has been developed. With 4,500 homes already and a population that surged from 6,000 residents in 1980 to 12,000 in 1995, the pressure from additional development is real. Septic tank horror stories abound and the main roads are choked with traffic.

Our creek is home to a wide array of critters, including a recovering population of western pond turtles. Fishing for steelhead trout was a summertime pastime until 1980, when the last fish was documented. Now listed as an endangered species, steelhead trout provide a litmus test for creek health. If the creek can support the fish, then perhaps there is hope of maintaining a healthy creek system.

Rabyn Blake, Chairperson of TCFMCAC then presented a summary of their work. They evolved in 1990 from a group responding to a proposed Floodway Ordinance which would significantly raise the anticipated water level in the creek during a flood due to runoff from the upper watershed. Buildings along the creek which were damaged for any reason, would have to be rebuilt up to 10 feet above the peak levels of the 1980 flood. In reality, this meant that rebuilding would be almost impossible. Creekside residents were already feeling the force of the runoff from the newly graded Summit Pointe, whose impacts far outweighed those predicted by the County approved drainage plan. Canyon Oaks was looming on the horizon, and people were justifiably worried that things would only get worse as the headwaters of Topanga Creek were paved. The Topanga community hired a hydrologist and began refuting some of the County's assumptions.

This led to the appointment of a formal committee by Supervisor Ed Edelman to study this problem further. In 1992, the committee presented "An Alternative Plan to the Proposed Topanga Canyon Floodway Ordinance". The plan included many recommendations, but foremost was the establishment of a watershed wide planning effort.

At the time, LA Times reporter Bill Boyarsky described Topangans as "obstructionist, temperamental, self-centered, uncompromising and paranoid". He then went on to add " but Topangans are smart to be suspicious. Anyone familiar with the history of LA County knows that flood control projects have permitted development in both the flatlands and the mountains.... For when Topanga residents say no, they are saving some of California's beauty for the rest of us."

The Board of Supervisors responded by challenging TCFMCAC to develop a watershed management plan. Finally completed in April 1996, the Draft Topanga Creek Watershed Management Study was sent out for review and became a blueprint for further action. Top on the list was establishment of a watershed committee to take the process forward.

Rabyn concluded with the following emotional remarks. "This arduous process was fueled by the passionate involvement of our volunteer engineers, biologists, geologists, writers and lawyers. With help from the RCDSMM and Supervisor Yaroslavsky's office, we are here today, eight years later, ready to begin our new process. We anticipate the realization of our vision with your participation. Thank you for joining with us."

Next, John Crawford, civil engineer and stalwart member of the TCFMCAC gave an brief summary of some of the main engineering and structural concerns identified in the Draft Management Study. First, he suggested that runoff from upslope development should be retained on site. This notion flies in the face of accepted practice of moving water as quickly as possible downstream. Instead of exacerbating the flood hazard, upslope development should be held responsible for maintaining or bettering existing conditions. While this may sound a bit radical, it really means that we need to pay more attention to how we design our projects. Simply implementing better grading practices, carefully evaluating brush clearing impacts and the downstram impacts of altering streamflow by installing hardscape along the banks would make a big difference. In some instances, undersized culverts create de facto detention basins which already help reduce peak flows.

"We need to view the stream as a whole and establish baseline hydrologic models using precise flow data. Then we can begin to evaluate different potential solutions that would decrease existing flood hazards and prevent increasing them inadvertently", Crawford concluded.

Water Quality

Water quality issues were addressed by hydrologist, engineer and TCFMCAC member Phil Chandler. "The biggest problem we have is the lack of baseline data," stated Chandler. Topanga has a whole host of potential contributors to the poor water quality marks we have received at the beach. Old septic tanks, corralled animals next to the creek, road runoff and sedimentation. He highlighted the connection between the fire and flood cycles and the impacts to water quality.

After several failed attempts at generating funding, this year the RCD submitted a 205j grant to the State Water Resources Control Board asking for $57,700 for 2 years to collect and analyze water quality throughout the watershed. The idea is to establish both fixed and roving stations for sampling water quality which will provide a baseline. Trained community volunteers will help collect data at 5 stations weekly and another 10 stations monthly for 2 years. Information about depth, temperature, pH, a variety of nutrients and turbidity will be analyzed with instruments provided through the RCD. Total suspended sediments, total and fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria counts will be done at a lab.

This information will be invaluable to the Topanga Watershed Committee in evaluating efforts to reduce non-point source pollution and restore water quality year round at Topanga Beach. Funding should be available to begin data collection in July 1999. In the meantime, further education will be a tool used to help community residents recognize the relationship of their actions (dumping horse manure into the creek, non-filtered graywater, etc.) to overall water quality. Some water data from Topanga was collected as part of a study done for the Malibu Creek Watershed. Shirley Biroski of the Regional Water Quality Control Board has promised to see about getting that for us.

Coordinated Resource Management Process

Also known as CRMP for short. Rosi Dagit, Conservation Biologist for the RCD presented the structural framework for the functioning of the committee. Since this is an entirely voluntary process with no regulatory powers, actions supported by the committee have to be implemented as a result of consensus. This means that everyone agrees to a particular recommendation and voluntarily participates in making it happen. The idea of consensus is easy to talk about and hard to implement. Everyone has an equal voice. No votes for majority rule. The process forces participants to stretch their points of view, to creatively think of solutions and be committed to working together to meet all needs. And it takes time! Sometimes consensus requires months of struggle to come up with a strategy that will satisfy all.

Given the nature of the Topanga community, it is perhaps the only way to approach voluntary implementation of best management practices. It also means that the new Watershed Committee will have to define it's goals. The mission is to provide coordinated watershed planning. The next step for the committee is define what watershed planning in Topanga is, and how to manage it. As a stepping off point, the recommended actions developed by the TCFMCAC were provided to all participants. Rosi asked that everyone take a look at these for the next meeting and "alter, amend, revise and add to the list." At the August 31 meeting, the real work of the committee will begin.

Watershed Web Page

A key part of the watershed planning effort is community involvement. In addition to regular updates in the Messenger, a web page providing all the details will be established, thanks to contributions from the Topanga Canyon Town Council, the Chamber of Commerce and Women's Club. Gary Meyer will have things up and running by the middle of August. Everyone is invited to look at the maps, read the minutes, review the handouts and give their input to the Committee. You can reach the web site by pointing any browser to or by logging on to Topanga Online home page. Although regular meetings will be held during the work day, the Committee plans to hold night forums for the community as things progress. Everyone is invited to either attend the meetings or send your suggestions to the RCD to be passed along to the committee.

The meeting concluded with everyone making connections and sharing ideas. "This is the second volume of the Topanga Story," suggested Susan Nissman, Deputy for Supervisor Yaroslavsky. "We've come full circle. Now we are looking at the watershed as a living, breathing entity. Everyone has a stake in keeping it alive. Our office considers this effort to be extremely important. Topanga is still viable, nothing is wiped out yet. We have a chance to really make things work."

Endangered Steelhead found in Topanga

Anthony Spina, biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service is an expert on our local endangered steelhead trout. His agency is the regulatory arm that oversees protection of the species. After the Watershed Committee meeting, he agreed to walk the creek on Friday, 31 July with RCD biologist Rosi Dagit, Noel Rhodes, and future conservationists Joseph Sloggy and Sean Denny to see if there were any trout present. Starting a bit below the bridge by Willows Restaurant, the creek waders searched for spawning and rearing habitat, barriers, impediments and fish.

We found incredible areas with perfect gravel beds for spawning. Deep pools shaded by overhanging oaks, willows and bays provide perfect summer refuge for baby fish. Huge boulders strewn about created dynamic waterfalls that at this low water stage were definite impediments to fish movement up or downstream, but might be passable when the rains are falling. Down we hiked, scrambling over boulders, soaked up to our waists, searching each stretch of likely water for the elusive steelhead. We found lots of Arroyo chubs, minnow like fishes of all sizes and ages. Tadpoles, waterstriders, whirlgig beetles and toe biters abounded. We almost stepped on a large garter snake and watched two smaller ones swimming in pools. Water temperature was fairly constant at 20 C, and pH was fine for fish at 7- 7.5.

Finally, down near the narrows, Anthony found a steelhead trout. A single yearling hid below the green filamentous alga at the edge of a pool. Black spots on a light background. White tips edged the fins. Swift , darting movements, streamlined body. Couldn't mistake it for a rotund, slow moving Arroyo chub. The fish was over two miles up from the ocean, and looking fine. This is the first official documentation of steelhead in Topanga Creek since a CA Dept. of Fish and Game survey in 1980. Listed last August as an endangered species, steelhead were thought to be found only north of Malibu Creek. Their range formerly extended all the way south to Baja, but due to impacts of human development, they have not been found for years.

An incredibly adaptable fish, steelhead trout are the anadromous version of rainbow trout. In fact, they are almost interchangeable in looks and behavior. Adults wait for the roiling floods to charge down the creek. They fight their way upstream in search of suitable spawning habitat. Hundreds of eggs are laid in coarse gravel and then most adults return to the ocean. The smolts hatch out and grow in the protected areas of the creek for 1-2 years. No one is really sure of the timing for small streams like Topanga. They primarily feed on small aquatic insects. Eventually, the small fish make their way downstream to the ocean. From there they make their way into the deep, returning in several years as adults ready to spawn.

The presence of this yearling means that adults made their way into Topanga Creek during the winter rains of 1997. It means that water quality in the creek is still good enough to support the food the fish need to grow. But why is there only one? What happened to all the others? Are adults able to reach the best spawning and rearing habitat above the boulder falls? Did the flood of 1980 set up the boulder barriers? Had they left due to the drought of the late 80's? Or did the influx of humans into the watershed since then have an impact? How will the presence of an endangered species impact Topanga?

Our creek walk generated a host of questions that will take years to answer. Finding all the threads and weaving them together into a livable web connecting all the inhabitants of the watershed will be a serious challenge for the community and the Topanga Watershed Committee. There are many issues to resolve and we are all in it for the long haul. But in the meantime, it sure is good to know that at least one steelhead trout thinks Topanga is a good home!

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