Spill Kills Summer on the Sacramento
July 19, 1991
Next to the upper Sacramento River, life seems so normal that the eyes are drawn to the towering peak of Mt. Shasta as it plays a morning dance with the clouds. Now you see it, now it's gone. On the river bank, children play beside what looks and smells like clean mountain water. A boy sells Kool-Aid for 25 cents a cup. No dying fish flop madly in the shallows.
The silent chemical damage is there, but to grasp its extent takes expertise with the river and the region of small towns, houseboat marinas and fishing pools that lie beneath Shasta's peak at the head of California's 600-mile-long Central Valley. "Of course the fish are gone, but look here -- no bugs," said trout angler Tom Hartman, picking through the rocks and mud. "Even if the fish survived, what would they eat?"
Without the stone flies and water dogs, there are no trout. Without trout there are precious few tourists, and tourists are the lifeblood of the forested region that promotes itself as the Shasta Cascade Wonderland. Campgrounds and motel parking lots stand vacant from historic Dunsmuir south for 45 miles along the upper Sacramento, until it empties into an arm of Shasta Lake. Vacationers fled the toxic plume that bled from a derailed train car Sunday night, leaving one of the state's most popular summer playgrounds as deserted as on a cloudy day in November.
In the historic railroad junction of Dunsmuir, proclaimed by signs as home of the "Best Water on Earth," the cruel truth is that the crucial summer season may be over. The town's biggest lure was the big native rainbows and browns, the clever and feisty naturally spawning trout that provide a sporting challenge to fly fishermen bored with the "dimwits" raised in hatcheries and planted in the river.
Now all the fish are gone from the river that splits the town in half, even the perch and the minnows, and no one knows how long it will take for native trout who may have hidden in tributaries to recolonize the river. The state is talking about making fishing illegal, maybe for years, to help the natives come back. To Dunsmuir Mayor Virginia Barham, the aficionado's concern with the genetic history of fish pales in the face of the threat to her town. "I was told that New Zealand doesn't have a single native trout, and they are renowned for their trout fishing," said Barham, who spent Thursday helping command a campaign to repair the town's image.
Last winter had been bad for business -- only five days of skiing on Mt. Shasta because of the drought, she said. But Dunsmuir was on a roll before the spill. The movie theater in town, the California, reopened last week to long lines after being dark for five years. The Dunsmuir Bottling Co. has also opened, bottling the town's spring water -- a separate, untainted supply -- for sale down south. The water, so copious it flows cold from open spigots all over town, is an important new sector of the local economy, helping replace the vanishing lumber mills and declining jobs on the trains.
Dunsmuir was born a railroad town in the 1880s -- the central business district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- and still has a Southern Pacific yard that employs about 300 people. A big slice of the 3,000 residents are retirees from Southern Pacific, and old engines and cabooses are placed as monuments around town. It was a Southern Pacific train that dumped the chemical in the river, and there is plenty of local talk about what may have gone wrong. The Cantara Loop, where the tank car derailed, is a notorious curve.
But the finger-pointing on Thursday was at state officials who keep handing drivers on Interstate 5 a flyer urging them to drive past Dunsmuir. "They are keeping us isolated, and it's unfair," Barham said. "Morally, they should consider the little guy. We need those tourists." At the visitor information office beside the city pool, where local children frolicked as on any other summer day, potential tourists are being told there are plenty of rivers around other than the destroyed piece of Sacramento. "There's lots of places to fish around here," said office manager Bob Duclaw. "We're trying to think positive and get our town together."
Downstream from Dunsmuir, trout fisherman Ray Remo called the accident a nasty trick of fate played on the river he has enjoyed for 27 years. The train derailed at the worst possible place, on a trestle over the most sensitive waterway, upstream from the most important reservoir, in a state built on dams and aqueducts. A few seconds sooner or later, another train, a different cargo -- and the precious river would have been spared. "What are the odds?" asked Remo.
In Castella, five miles south of Dunsmuir at the gateway to Castle Crags State Park, the crowd gathered outside Ammirati's Market was pessimistic. "We're going to need help," said Rich Tyler. "A lot of us make our living because of tourism, and with the lumber mills disappearing, what else are we going to do?" Before the spill, the motels, campgrounds and RV parks were filled as always with midsummer vacationers. "When all the fish were killed, they all pulled out," said John Reginato, general manager of the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Assn., which promotes tourism in the region. "I lived most of my life on the Sacramento River -- I learned to swim in those damn swimming holes," Reginato said. "What do you do when you lose a friend you've had all your life -- it hits you like a tragedy. But I have ultimate faith. The Sacramento always seems to come back."
Recovery of the river -- and of the region's tourism -- depends on the extent of damage done by the chemical, metam-sodium. Trees and bushes along the river appear normal, but scientists expect a massive die-off over the next few weeks -- the chemical is, after all, a weed killer. If the plants go, the job of re-establishing insects could take much longer. Still unknown is the fate of the frogs, the newly flourishing population of river otters and the eagles, which have been reported eating the fish carcasses washing into the lake. "The whole basis of an ecosystem has been destroyed," said Banky Curtis, head of the local office of the state Department of Fish and Game. "We don't have a lot of experience with this."
The irony in this tragedy is appreciated by Tink Howells, a fisherman chased off the Sacramento by the spill. Shasta Dam, like most dams, has mostly killed fish in its history, all but wiping out the salmon runs that used to swim up the Sacramento River from San Francisco Bay to spawn. But this time, the dam has probably reduced the destruction by holding the chemical in a large body of water. Without the dam, Howells said, "we might have seen dead fish washing up for 100 miles downriver."
©Los Angeles Times 1991