Can steelhead trout be restored to the LA river?

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A hundred years ago, the LA River flowed seasonally from the mountains down to the ocean. As recently as the 1940s, fishermen could catch native fish near Downtown LA and Pasadena.

The flagship species was the now-endangered, steelhead trout. This was before the fish vanished, and concrete became the dominant feature of today’s river, which resembles, a glorified storm-drain rather than a natural river-system.

But as nearly $1.5 billion is being invested in restoration projects along the river, conservationists are optimistic about bringing back the steelhead trout.

Tim Brick, managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, said the trout persist, even if no one has spotted them there over the last few years.

“Even as degraded as conditions have become, there are still fish,” Brick said. “Fish are like surfers. The trout wait for the flood and then go out to the ocean. But they can’t get back–that’s the problem.”

Getting a healthy trout population back into the river matters because it will be good for humans, too, said Wendy Katagi, an expert on watersheds and environmental law.

A renewed river boasting miles of earthen bottom with native plants shading cleaner and more abundant water would mean a healthy habitat for fish, and recreational and aesthetic benefits for Angelenos.

Katagi said she’s optimistic. “I think the LA River is in a really good place with all of their funding and their decision-making,” she said.

However, there’s still a ways to go. According to aquatic ecologist AJ Keith, it may take 10-20 years to see a robust trout population.

While many Angelenos may not care about steelhead trout, or multi-decade restoration projects-they might appreciate fishing, walking, or biking along a restored LA River. “I think that’s just an incredibly valuable thing to give our children and subsequent generations, especially in an urban area like Los Angeles,” Keith said.