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Does California Need a $1 Million 'Fish Ladder'?

This is a rush transcript from "Hannity," June 4, 2010. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

AINSLEY EARHARDT, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Malibu. Sun, surf, sand and million-dollar homes. But there's something missing from this coastal paradise: steel-head trout.

(on camera) For centuries here in Malibu, California, the fish used to travel back and forth between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica mountains. But that all changed when humans moved in.

RON KOSINSKI, CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION: In 1949 they built the Pacific Coast Highway and blocked the passage ability for the trout to pass and go up dream from the ocean and spawn.

EARHARDT: So 60 years after the people got their highway, California wants the trout to get theirs.

KOSINSKI: Currently, if you're a fish and you're swimming in from the ocean, you're going to come to this and it's — it's like a dam, right, so you're going to have to jump up into this shallow concrete channel and then skedaddle up through the culvert until you get to the natural stream on the other side of Pacific Coast Highway.

EARHARDT: And the fish can't do that, so the California Department of Transportation will be spending a million dollars building a fish ladder to help them.

MARK ABRAMSON, SANTA MONICA BAY RESTORATION: We're going to put steps every 20 feet. They'll be a foot and a half high, and it will create a ladder, which is why we call it a fish ladder, so fish could jump a foot and a half. There will be a little pool there so it can rest for a second. It will swim up a little further, jump another foot and a half, a little pool there so it can rest and continue until it can get upstream through the Pacific Coast Highway.

ROSI DAGIT, CONSERVATION BIOLOGIST: If we restore passage in places throughout the Santa Monica mountains, throughout the range of the southern steelhead trout, then we open opportunities for them to spawn again. It's one of those rare opportunities where you can create suitable habitat and connect again and potentially have the fish go back.

KOSINSKI: It's an endangered species. What we're trying to do is bring back steelhead trout to this area and we create that. Certainly, these are tough economic times, and we understand that, and so it is a balance, no doubt.

EARHARDT: A balance not everyone agrees with.

CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE ROBERT FLUTIE, R-CALIF.: We're in difficult times. I mean, I think that the fact that we have the highest unemployment rate in the nation and that we are continuing to see jobs leave the state...

EARHARDT: Robert Flutie is a Republican running for Congress in the district that contains Malibu.

FLUTIE: People are sympathetic to being able to conserve the beauty of the landscape of a wonderful state like California. But it's hard to reconcile that against the backdrop of people who are having difficult times paying their mortgage, putting food on the table, and putting gas in their car.

EARHARDT: In fact, California is broke, worse than broke. The state is facing a more than $19 billion budget deficit. So Governor Schwarzenegger just demanded $12.4 billion in cuts to programs like welfare, childcare and mental health services.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER , R-CALIF: California no longer has low-hanging fruits. We don't have any medium-hanging fruits. We also don't have any high-hanging fruits. We literally have to take the ladder from the tree and shake the whole tree.

EARHARDT (on camera): This happens to be one of many projects funded by bonds voted on by the voters here in the state of California before this state fell into a deep financial mess.

DAGIT: There was a proposition that was to fund specifically projects to improve water quality and to improve habitat for aquatic organisms. And so that money can only be spent on projects that achieve those two goals.

FLUTIE: At the time that that — those bonds were voted upon, the state was in a completely different set of circumstances.

KOSINSKI: Certainly there's — there are some that individuals that, you know, would rather we take that money and pay the state employees what they were paid with before these furloughs came in.

But you know, I think that the vast majority of people support the concept of re-introducing this endangered species into this area.

EARHARDT (voice-over): But are fish ladders the best way to do that? Some environmentalists say no.

ABRAMSON: All the people that are dealing with fish passage projects consider a fish ladder the worst and last possible option. You look for many other options before you would ever even consider a fish ladder.

Two thousand tons is a lot of boulders to make sure that it goes out to the ocean, and then they can put their little steps in there to get the fish up into our culvert. It's certainly not going to be a sandy beach. It's a 60-foot wide, 120-foot long, 2,000 tons of rock channel.

EARHARDT: Abramson would rather knock out the culvert and put in a bridge for both fish and people to use.

ABRAMSON: And even if a fish never showed up, that's still is a good project. You give us a bridge, we'll get at least another 50 years of life out of it.

EARHARDT: And the million-dollar price tag might be just the beginning. This is a picture of a fish ladder built for a million dollars eight years ago in Santa Paulo, about an hour away. It no longer works, and the federal government is considering spending 7 1/2 million more to redo it.

JOE BLAINE, FORGE PROPERTY CARETAKER: I call it the great Malibu steelhead trout pork, because there's a whole lot of pork, but I haven't seen any trout.

EARHARDT: Joe Blaine lives on the Malibu property belonging to Daniel Forge, whose restaurant butts up to the Solstice Canyon Creek.

BLAINE: Unfortunately, the system is set up so that nobody says, "No, we don't want any more money." Everybody says, "Sacramento, send us more money. Federal government, send us more money."

EARHARDT: When Mr. Forge refused to let Caltrans use part of his property for the project, he was threatened with having it seized by eminent domain.

EARHARDT (on camera): This is all for the trout, right?

DANIEL FORGE, MALIBU RESTAURANT OWNER: There's no fish. There's never been any fish. I've never seen one in 35 years here.

EARHARDT: So why do they want to do this?

FORGE: Could you swim in that water?

EARHARDT: What are you saying?

FORGE: Just think for a second that you're a trout or a fish.

EARHARDT: You've never seen a fish in here?

FORGE: No, never.

EARHARDT (voice-over): But advocates say that could soon change.

DAGIT: The great thing about these fish is that they're like the Field of Dreams fish: if you build it, they will come. They're opportunistic in the way they go to their spawning grounds. And if the creek is suitable and if they can get up it, they will do so.

EARHARDT (on camera): How do we say we're putting fish before families?

DAGIT: I don't think we're putting fish before families. I actually think that that's an incorrect way to state it. The fish are part of our world. And when we start removing and taking out pieces of our world, we pay for it, one way or another.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SEAN HANNITY, HOST: And joining us now, our own Ainsley Earhardt.

Listen, I'm all in favor. We should — I'm a conservationist. Good stewards of the gifts God gave us. Here's the problem we have: Unemployment now in California is 12.6 percent. California has a $20 billion budget deficit.

EARHARDT: Well, that's the problem. The state of California voted for this. They said they wanted this money to go to efforts to save fish and this type of thing.

HANNITY: Fish ladder.

EARHARDT: Now they're saying, at least the people that we talked to are saying, "Hold on a minute. We're spending a lot of money, almost a million dollars to save these fish. Is this really the right time to do that?" That's the controversy there in California.

HANNITY: Is it the right time? We don't — look, I'd love to do wonderful projects, worthy projects, you know, to help people, but right now California, by the way, has slashed childcare programs, mental health programs, California's welfare program. That's 1.4 million people that will be impacted by this.

So we really come down to a simple question: Save the fish or save the people?

HANNITY: Right. Well, you heard in the story, I said the — I asked the environmentalists, I said, "Are you choosing fish over families?"

And she said, "You can't even ask that because we need the fish to be part of the ecosystem." So she makes a good point, and I definitely see both sides. But there's also that issue of spending a lot of money when people are out of work.

HANNITY: Ainsley, $19.1 billion budget deficit.

EARHARDT: I agree, but I'm a journalist. I have to see both sides.

HANNITY: You have to see both sides. I have to see one side, the right side.

Why don't they just get a boat, catch the fish and then, you know, move them to the other side? We can start a ferry service for fish. Anything but, you know, a ladder, fish ladders. Your taxpayer dollars at work.

Ainsley great report, appreciate it.

EARHARDT: Sure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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