PESCADERO -- Since 1995, hundreds of steelhead trout protected by the Endangered Species Act have suffocated in oxygen-depleted water at Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve in a winter ritual that locals blame on California State Parks mismanagement.
Now, after years of controversy, a panel of scientists is poised to issue recommendations for how the California Department of Parks and Recreation should manage the largest wetland between Marin County and Santa Cruz, which serves as vital habitat for the steelhead and other threatened and endangered species.
But though a strategy to end the die-offs could finally be at hand, there is plenty of skepticism in the tiny coastal town of Pescadero. The locals who have fought the hardest to stop the fish kills have all but given up on a solution, worn down by years of study and bureaucratic wrangling.
Their leader, plumber and Pescadero Country Store co-owner Steve Simms, is preparing to disband his nonprofit, Coastal Alliance for Species Enhancement. His donors are tapped out.
"In my mind, I haven't accomplished a damn thing" said Simms, 67.
Simms and other critics claim State Parks has long dragged its feet, calling for further study of the problem, to avoid taking responsibility for the kills. The agency says the ecosystem is complex and poorly understood -- manipulating the marsh to stop the die-offs could have unforeseen consequences for the steelhead and other protected species.
State Parks, along with state and federal wildlife agencies, convened the independent panel in 2013 to synthesize reams of data on the marsh and deliver the best possible assessment of how it operates along with recommendations for managing the 235-acre property. Its report is almost a year overdue, but State Parks officials now expect its release this summer.
The recommendations will need to be powerful enough to break a bureaucratic stalemate between State Parks and two agencies charged with protecting threatened or endangered species: the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA Restoration Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA and Fish and Wildlife support urgent action to help the steelhead, and in recent years they have grown increasingly bold. Last summer they plucked 54 ailing steelhead from the lagoon and dropped them in the ocean.
"We've seen what no action does," said Fish and Wildlife environmental program manager Eric Larson. "No action means every fall we're going to have a fish kill."
The die-offs at Pescadero Marsh began in 1995, two years after State Parks began a massive restoration of the preserve and four years after Caltrans replaced the Highway 1 bridge crossing the mouth of the lagoon.
Pescadero residents and some wildlife experts attribute the kills to the ill-fated restoration project, which was meant to restore the estuary to a more natural form after decades of manipulation by farmers.
The conditions that cause the die-offs developed on the southern side, where State Parks dug away old levees, allowing water to flood old farming fields and marsh vegetation to spring up.
Researchers theorize that decomposing plants consume the oxygen in the stagnant water. When winter storms arrive, the lagoon swells, causing the sandbar between the marsh and the Pacific Ocean to break open. A deadly blend of oxygen-starved water surges toward the mouth of the lagoon.
There have been 11 die-offs since 2000, killing at least 1,180 steelhead. The actual number is certainly higher, due to inconsistent counting methods and the difficulty in finding all the carcasses.
Given its paltry research budget, State Parks has not conducted recent population estimates for the steelhead in the lagoon, so it's unclear what percentage of the fish are dying. Jerry Smith, a San Jose State biology professor who has studied the marsh extensively, says he did surveys in the 1980s that varied between several hundred and 15,000 steelhead, depending on how much rain fell each winter.
State Parks argues its cautious approach is in keeping with state law governing natural preserves, which discourages interference with natural processes and requires that any habitat manipulation be supported by scientific analysis.
Although 19 years have passed since the first fish kill, the agency claims its scientific understanding of the marsh's natural dynamics remains insufficient to justify yearly breaches or other urgent measures to combat the die-offs.
Jay Chamberlin, the chief of State Parks' natural resources division, compared the marsh to a car. In order to fix a problem with the engine, he said, it's important to know how each part interacts with the others.
"We've asked this panel of scientists to tell us how the engine works, to give us that technical drawing for how this system functions," said Chamberlin. "Then we can have an intelligent conversation on the subject."
Several environmental groups, including the Committee for Green Foothills, support State Parks' philosophy of managing the marsh for the "composite whole," not one species.
"You ask any ecologist," said Lennie Roberts, the committee's influential legislative advocate, "and they'll say you can't manage any ecosystem for one species alone."
But some critics say steelhead aren't the only protected species being harmed. Jerry Smith claims the 1990s restoration degraded habitat for the California red-legged frog, San Francisco garter snake and a tiny fish called the tidewater goby, all federally threatened species.
State Parks says there is no evidence those populations have declined but acknowledged it hasn't conducted any population studies of the species.
Smith and other observers argue State Parks has been granted leeway to deal with possible Endangered Species Act violations that a private landowner wouldn't get.
"If Chevron had modified an ecosystem and substantially reduced red-legged frog habitat, reduced snake habitat, reduced goby habitat and had a fish kill most years," said Smith, "they wouldn't be able to say, 'Well, let's study it for another 15 years and see what happens.'"
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.