Armed with pictures of a clean creek from the '20s, he invites his guests to compare these shots to the current reality. Swirling ponds of bubbling algae pervade, looking especially nasty, while wooden and concrete boundaries around the creek frequently appear either decaying or slapdash—walls are held together with railroad ties the same way someone might attach a flier to a telephone pole using staples.

But there are signs of life in the creek: fish darting around, seeming perfectly at home, even under the noxious swirls. Isn't that a sign of viability? Not so fast. "Many people are seeing fish in here, and they think that means it's a viable, healthy, living stream," Butow says. "Carp are low-oxygen species. They can practically live in a post-nuclear condition. They are not high-oxygen-demand fish, and they're really not a marker of a healthy ecosystem. If anything, their preponderance indicate[s] they're probably the only fish species that can live in this kind of environment."

The kind of fish Hazzard is concerned about is the steelhead trout, once thought extinct and still protected under the Endangered Species Act. Hazzard is a former stream-team coordinator for Trout Unlimited, the 50-year-old cold-water-fisheries restoration organization, and a current "commander" of the Steelhead Militia, an organization based out of Saddleback College founded to protect the steelhead. He became an environmental activist following a swim in the Upper Oso reservoir to retrieve an outboard motor. "I went from four pages of medical records to [having] sores the size of a dime," he says. "I broke out in hives, later sores the size of a quarter [that] ate down to the muscle tissue, stayed open for six months, lost 70 pounds. It looked like I had full-blown AIDS." And that's when he says he called the county to report the sickness and was told "you can't get sick in the waters of Orange County."

Penny, Saver: Sierra Club activist Alia
Jennie Warren
Penny, Saver: Sierra Club activist Alia

After that, he says, he called Santa Clarita water management; the call was misrouted and went out to the sewage-treatment plant, which supplied the water for the reservoir. "And when I told the guy where I was, his response was, 'Oh my God, you're still alive?'" Hazzard recalls. "And that's when he said, 'You've got to tell your doctors what's in this water,' and that's when I started turning the corner and getting better. It took me five years to fully recover."

While we observe the dark-colored fish, which Butow dubs "cockroaches of the creek," something else comes into view. It appears to be a fish of a different sort, silver rather than black like the carp, lying on its side, motionless—possibly dead, or at least starved for oxygen.

"Hazzard, I think that might be a steelhead!" exclaims Butow. Hazzard proves himself a dedicated militiaman: Despite the stench of the water and Butow's warnings about both the pathogens and toxins contained within, Hazzard steps into the creek to get a closer look. He's almost there when the seemingly dead creek denizen stirs back to life and flees, which apparently is "what a steelhead would do."

Butow sees the fish come to a stop farther down, but Hazzard refuses to "chase it around."

The Laguna Beach Independent quoted the Athens Group's Mansour saying of the steelhead, "That's a rare fish. We're not planning for it."

As Hazzard rinses off his wet legs, Butow opines that, "These guys would flip out, especially if we found it!"

At the scoping hearing three days later, Hazzard stated he's 99 percent sure it was a steelhead, citing OC Weekly as having been there with him. He also revealed that as a result of stepping into the creek, a cut on his toe became infected and swelled up, but he's fine now.

Legally, Hazzard says, the Athens Group needs to make alterations in the creek bed to allow for the steelhead, which would require a 1602 permit ("Notification of Lake or Streambed Alteration") from the Army Corps of Engineers. "It would be easy if they just work with us," he says, "and they'll have to work with us because we're not going away."

You might think that Butow would be wholeheartedly against the Athens project, especially to hear him talk about how he dreams of a "super-El Niño" to wash away all human development in the area.

But you'd be wrong. Butow believes that Athens' plans to elevate the floodplain with concrete structures are "the only way to redevelop this site." Though he'd rather see zero human presence whatsoever, he believes the current developers to be about as good as one could expect, saying, "Since the state, county and/or Laguna Beach couldn't afford to purchase the old resort when it was for sale, there is no other solution." He derides many of his fellow environmentalists as "idiots [who] wouldn't know a watershed from a waterspout. Thus most current criticism/input comes from resentment and ignorance. Ask them to define water quality, and they haven't a clue."

As far as he's concerned, the problem is farther inland and has been since the city of Mission Viejo was developed. He reckons the area controlled by Athens accounts for about 1 percent of the total creek pollution.

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