Reaching the 'coldest water'

Two decades in the making, Lower Deer Creek fish passage project finally complete

Northern California’s Deer Creek may have a common name, but as a habitat for fish, it is far from ordinary. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, more than 600 identically named creeks and streams are found throughout the United States, but this tributary to the Sacramento River is a special place: Deer Creek supports the Central Valley’s second-largest naturally reproducing population of spring-run Chinook salmon. Credit: Photo - Steve Martarano/USFWS, Caption - FISHBIO.com

By Steve Martarano
April 19, 2018

Fish Biologist Tricia Parker recalls vividly her first visit to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Red Bluff office. What stood out in her memory was a fish ladder repair project that was needed at Lower Deer Creek Falls in Tehama County.

That was in 1996.

Parker, who started working in Red Bluff shortly thereafter, was put in charge of that critical effort to rebuild the failing fish ladder. This includes funneling the fish over a waterfall and bringing threatened spring-run Chinook salmon and other imperiled species back to a key spawning creek located about 35 miles northeast of Chico.

“I definitely sleep better at night,” said fish biologist and project manager Tricia Parker, shown here above the waterfall at the Lower Deer Creek fish ladder project site. “It was quite unsettling to dismantle the original ladder and not have any passage structure for two years. There’s a sense of relief knowing the project is finished and fish can get upstream again.” Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

Getting adult spring run salmon back to the uppermost stretches of the creek where the water is coldest has become an urgent need due to the increasing severity of droughts and warmer temperatures in California.

Twenty-two years later, Parker can say the $2.5 million project is done. Now, the wait is on to see how the fish migrate through this spring.

“I definitely sleep better at night,” said Parker, noting the effort from the beginning of construction to completion took almost two years. “It was quite unsettling to dismantle the original ladder and not have any passage structure for two years. There’s a sense of relief knowing the project is finished and fish can get upstream again.”

Deer Creek originates at over 7,000 feet in elevation near Lake Almanor in Plumas County and flows for nearly 70 miles to meet the Sacramento River. Credit: USFWS

The Lower Deer Creek Falls Fish Passage Improvement Project, located on property owned by Northern California Regional Land Trust, was constructed by Northwest Hydraulic Consultants and subcontractors Meyers Earthwork and Dyer All Terrain Excavation. Work began the summer of 2016, wrapping up in December 2017.

The project included turning off the water of an existing fish ladder and demolishing an older ineffective structure in existence since the 1940s.

The project is truly an engineering marvel: located in a deep canyon, with no road access, approximately 500 tons of rock were excavated out of the old fishway area while a new one was built, using pre-cast concrete panels roughly 7 feet deep, 10 feet long, and almost 7 feet wide, to form a series of 14 pools and 15 weirs that help fish get upstream of the waterfall.

To get to the tight construction site, a giant, blue spider excavator provided by Dyer All Terrain Excavation had to inch its way 600 feet down a steep, tree-lined hill off the road into the canyon each July at the beginning of the construction season, where it would stay and do its work for several months to minimize impacts to wildlife.

A landing strip a half-mile away overlooked the project site, where a helicopter took out excavated rock and brought in other heavy supplies.

To get to the tight construction site, a giant, blue spider excavator had to inch its way 600 feet down a steep, tree-lined canyon wall each July at the beginning of the construction season. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

Deer Creek originates at over 7,000 feet in elevation near Lake Almanor in Plumas County, California and is considered an excellent recreational fishing stream. At almost 70-miles-long, it flows southwestward through Tehama County. It is an eastside tributary of the Sacramento River and one of only three remaining Sacramento River tributaries supporting native runs of the Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon.

There is one other natural waterfall on Deer Creek called Upper Deer Creek Falls a few miles up Highway 32 past the U.S. Forest Service Potato Patch Campground. It too had a fish ladder built in the 1940s or 1950s, but that one is not a priority to rebuild at this time, Parker said.

Several state and federal efforts assisted with funding through various salmon restoration programs, including the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Drought Response Implementation Plan and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The original fish ladder was built by hand in the 1940s as mitigation for habitat loss due to the construction of Shasta Dam. But the fish ladder wore down over the years and fish couldn’t navigate the steps of the ladder to make it the rest of the way to spawn in the higher elevation pools, Parker said.

Constructed in the 1940s, the fish ladder decayed over the years and fish couldn’t navigate the steps to spawn in the higher elevation pools, said project manager Tricia Parker, shown here at the old fish ladder in August 2016. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

“As a result, the fish could have problems getting over the falls,” Parker said. “The state and NOAA Fisheries have criteria that fish ladders must meet and the lower rung of the ladder had been washed away. If fish can’t get up that first step of the ladder, they’re going to struggle to make it the rest of the way.”

An annual August snorkel survey, which looks at the number of fish holding in high-elevation, cool spawning pools, was bearing increasingly bad news.

The survey is conducted on a 22-mile stretch of the creek, and last year’s paltry 219 fish were among the worst numbers ever counted in the pools. Over the past 20 years, the survey usually counted around 1,000 fish, getting as high as 2,800 one year.

This survey is staffed by a diverse group of biologists from state and federal fishery agencies, Parker said.

“It is definitely a collaborative effort that we couldn’t do single-handedly,” Parker said, noting the strong cooperation that was needed by the landowner, as well as government agencies to get the project done.

The completed project: The view from on top of the fish ladder tunnel near pool #15 looking downstream at Lower Deer Creek. Depending on stream flows, the fish will likely begin moving through the new ladder May through June, said project manager Tricia Parker. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

Howard Brown, NOAA Fisheries Sacramento River Basin Chief located in Sacramento, has been intently watching the progress of the project since the mid-1990s, when he began participating in the snorkel surveys on Deer Creek as a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Howard Brown, NOAA Fisheries Sacramento River Basin chief, shown here during a 2009 snorkel survey, estimates he’s participated in the Deer Creek snorkeling surveys about 20 times.  Courtesy photo: Mike Tucker/NMFS

“I spent a lot of time on Deer Creek back then and we noticed the fish ladder was damaged and we reported it to the Department (of then Fish and Game),” said Brown, who estimates he’s done the August snorkeling survey almost 20 times since 1995.

After Brown left the Forest Service and landed at NOAA, he helped start a discussion about replacing the fish ladder.

“I knew that area pretty well, and organized a field tour. A number of us from several agencies went out there, hiked in, checked out the ladder, and talked about whether it was time for repairs or to replace,” he said, noting that NOAA eventually signed off on the permit allowing construction of the project.

The new ladder should take advantage of existing habitat as well, Brown said.

Bolts were drilled 20 to 30 feet into the hillside to stabilize it so that the new fish ladder could be constructed. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

“There is some very good holding and spawning habitat upstream from Lower Deer Creek Falls that has been underutilized over the past 10 to 15 years due to ongoing problems with the old fish ladder,” Brown added. “Considering the anticipated effects of water temperature changes and the implications of this on spring-run Chinook salmon survival, it’s important that these fish have access to the higher elevation habitats above the falls.”

With the project complete as of last December, Parker said they will be getting a first read this summer on how well the rebuilt ladder is working.

Depending on stream flows, the fish will likely begin moving through the new ladder May through June, Parker said, and then the annual snorkel count in August will give an idea if the numbers improved on last year’s dismal showing. The hope is that some may take advantage of this year’s April rains as an upstream migration impetus to reach their holding areas for the summer ahead.

“The spring-run Chinook salmon have a four-year lifecycle, but sometimes it will take us up to 10 years for a good data set,” Parker said. “We have our fingers crossed.”

At pool 7 on Lower Deer Creek, the new grate covers the completed fish passage tunnel beside the steep rocky canyon wall.  The creek is one of the few remaining streams in the Central Valley where anadromous fish can access the full extent of their historical spawning habitat. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

 

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Steve Martarano

About the writer...

Steve Martarano is currently the public affairs specialist in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Fish and Wildlife Office located in Sacramento, California.

He has spent almost 30 years in both state and federal government public affairs after a 10-year stint at a daily newspaper in Sacramento.

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