On July 9, in Boise, Idaho, and in the arms of his wife Julie and daughter Tess, Dick Dahlgren took his last breath at the age of 80. For all the people generously described as a Renaissance Man or Woman, Dick was one of few in my opinion who could genuinely be described as such.
When developers began to win too many of those battles to suit him, he retired with his wife Julie to Idaho, where they built the quintessential log cabin and fishing camp literally a cast from Idaho’s Big Lost River. As time marched on, it was accompanied by the infirmities of advancing age and Dick admitted to feeling down until discovering a talent for both art and writing and began engaging in both at a furious pace. He proudly displayed photos of his artwork along with excerpts and book reviews on his Facebook page, which he used to stay in touch with friends old and new.
I’m proud to say that we were friends. If you are an angler who loves the Eastern Sierra with its abundant trout streams, or maybe a naturalist taken in by the unique beauty and wildlife of Mono Lake – Dick Dahlgren was your friend too.
It was Dick whose discovery of trout in normally dry Rush Creek led to the epic David versus Goliath battle that pitted him against the powerful and seemingly omnipotent Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. In the end, he won. Previously diverted streams, fish, wildlife and Mono Lake won – and so did you and I.
Following is a column that appeared May 2, 1985 in The Tribune as the battle lines were beginning to be drawn:
River of brown trout has water works officials seeing red
As forecast, good weather and even better fishing produced thousands of satisfied anglers as the Sierra trout season opened last weekend.
Few of them however went home as satisfied as Dick Dahlgren of Mammoth Lakes.
Instead of a creel of rainbows or a hook-jawed old brown trout, Dahlgren it seems has landed a stream. That at least is the optimistic consensus of those who have been watching and waiting since Dahlgren first got a strike last fall and set the hook – a hook that seems painfully embedded in the seat of the powerful Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
It all began Oct. 13, when Dahlgren decided to go for a drive and take a little hike – something the DWP wishes he would do today. Dahlgren’s car took him along a dirt road to the southern edge of Mono Lake – site of an ongoing battle between the DWP and a coalition of areas residents and conservation groups. His feet and curiosity took him to the mouth of Rush Creek. There he spotted a brown trout feeding on brine shrimp unique to Mono Lake that had ventured into the stream. There were two things wrong with that scene. Not only was the stream supposed to be barren of trout; it also was supposed to be dry.
Until the season ended Oct. 31, Dahlgren chose to ignore what was supposed to be and enjoyed what was; “an absolutely fantastic trout stream.” Checking around, he found that a handful of other anglers had made the same discovery, but had generally kept their find secret. It is both ironic and coincidental that one of the stream’s discoverers was the Mono County coroner, because it was soon to be dead. Within days the DWP planned to dry the stream up – something it had been doing since 1940.
Nature’s plan for Rush Creek has it flowing just north and west of the Owens River watershed, providing life for plant and animals communities and water for Mono Lake.
That plan has prevailed for eons until Rush Creek was eyed by the City of Los Angeles as a source of water for its own communities. Four lakes were built to regulate Rush Creek‘s irregular flow. Those lakes, June, Gull, Silver and Grant are known as the June Lake Loop, one of the Sierra’s most popular recreation areas. Rush Creek was then diverted through a tunnel into the Owens River, from which it could be neatly packaged and shipped to the multitudes growing in Los Angeles. Other than the drying and dying of Mono Lake, the system seemed to be working well – especially for Los Angeles and its Department of Water and Power.
The present situation began in 1981, when exceptional rainfall and runoff amounted to more water than could be siphoned through the tunnel. The excess simply spilled out of Grant lake and proceeded down its natural and historical course to Mono Lake. As it turns out, a few trout also spilled out, proving that you really can go home again. They promptly set up housekeeping and began producing more trout, thousand and thousands of them. So many that this stream that isn’t supposed to be is once again what it really and naturally is supposed to be – a premier natural trout stream and source of water and life for Mono Lake. DFG surveys have turned up as many as 7,000 trout per mile in the most productive stretches of Rush Creek.
When he learned last fall that the stream would again be diverted to LA and lower Rush Creek would dry up, Dahlgren laid down his fly rod and screamed “foul.” His call has been answered by a curious coalition of individuals and groups ready to enter battle over Rush Creek. The common thread through these uncommon allies is that they share a common enemy – the DWP.
Even Dahlgren is amazed by the alliance and somewhat amused by what some may feel is a contradiction in himself. “Hell,” he says, “I’m no environmentalist, I’m a real estate broker, but even I know the difference between right and wrong. From the time I heard it was going to be dried up, I knew I had to try and save it. I had to do something.”
Doing something meant becoming a catalyst. First he was joined by fellow members of the Mammoth Flyrodders over which he presides. Later came support from the Mono Lake Committee, CalTrout and others who have rallied around this improbable hero.
The key legal issue is section 5937 of the Fish and Game Code which says, “the owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water at all times to pass through a fishway, or in the absence of a fishway, allow sufficient water to pass over, around or through the dam to keep in good condition any fish which may be planted or exist below the dam.”
On that basis, the DWP was restrained from following through with a scheduled Nov. 16 shutoff date and was ordered to maintain a minimal flow to keep alive the stream’s trout. On March 6, that position was upheld by a preliminary injunction against DWP, which has maintained that an agreement entered into in 1940 with the Department of Fish and Game gives them the right to dry lower Rush Creek, portions of Walker Creek, Parker Creek, Lee Vining Creek and the Owens River Gorge below Crowley Lake in return for the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery which was built by the DWP as mitigation.
No one it seems, is questioning that interpretation of the agreement. What is being questioned and has been upheld by the courts thus far, according to attorney Barrett McInerney, is the legality of the agreement – regardless of what it says.
McInerney is arguing that a state agency or commission cannot write or enter into an agreement waiving a penal code statute, and thus far the courts have agreed.
“In giving us the preliminary injunction against the DWP, the judge (David Otis), in effect, said it is probable that all of the city’s water agreements are illegal and have been for over 45 years,” said McInerney.
Precisely that issue will be the order of business when the court convenes tomorrow in Bridgeport. Dahlgren and his allies are confident of a permanent injunction and optimistic that the ruling will carry over to other streams now dry as a result of the original agreement. High on their list is the restoration of flows in the Owens River gorge.
Regardless of the outcome, it is likely the battle will not end there – not when you’re talking about a foe with the financial, legal and political resources of the city of Los Angeles and its Department of Water and Power.
In the meantime, fishing is pretty good in Lower Rush Creek and Dahlgren and his friends are wearing a smile of satisfaction that comes from more than catching a few fish.
They think he caught a stream.