(photo by Smash)

MALIBU — If you thought Malibu Creek was healthy, think again.

A group of local middle school students recently set out on a 20-week special project with the intention to learn about the Malibu Creek habitat. What they discovered was a native, keystone species on the brink of extinction.

The steelhead trout is a species native to the Malibu Creek whose population has dwindled from over 3,000 in 2008 to an estimated 50 in 2011, according to Mackenzie Varner, an eighth grade member of the QuikSCienceTeam at Santa Monica Alternative School House (SMASH).

The team of seven students led by SMASH students Varner and Emma Green, determined that the fish population is dying as an unintended consequence of an 86-year old dam, an increase in agriculture and aging septic systems in the Malibu Creek watershed.

The combination of natural erosion, restricted water flow, pollutants from the Tapia Water Treatment Plant and failing septic systems have created a large pond of “Malibu muck” high up in the canyon behind the dam, said Fiona Story, another team member who did research on the subject.

While the muck is “technically safe for humans, it’s bad for the fish,” said Varner.

In addition to the muck, the Rindge Dam has prevented the normally ocean-faring steelhead trout from returning to their original fresh water spawning grounds high up in the Malibu Creek canyon.

“There fish have the same spawning habits as the Pacific salmon, and now they have nowhere to go,” said Kayla Palleiko, another team member.

Destroying the Rindge Dam and rehabilitating the habitat would cost up to $71 million, according to Naomi Miller-Altuner, another student on the project.

Even if the dam is destroyed the effluent would need to “travel downstream into the Malibu lagoon and eventually, Surfrider beach.

The study was initiated by an innovative learning program called QuikSCience. The program was created as a partnership between USC, Quiksilver and middle/high schools to explore marine-related problems and help educate youth and the community around marine related problems.

The first step of the 20-week project was to study the environmental problem to fully understand and determine the cause. The next step was to build educational materials to explain the problem to young children, teens and adults.

Next was a visit to the creek to get a physical inspection of the dam and sample the water. The students did a swimming survey in the creek and found no trout, including SMASH members Maya Reimer and Devin Dempsey.

In true Santa Monica fashion, the team circulated at the Downtown Farmers’ Market and gathered over 100 signatures on a petition to the city of Malibu to address the problem.

ross@www.smdp.com

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