A creek in common

BEC and eco-firm FISHBIO share interest in health of Big Chico Creek

FISHBIO researchers wade through Big Chico Creek during a recent fish count.

FISHBIO researchers wade through Big Chico Creek during a recent fish count.


The Butte Environmental Council and local eco-consulting firm FISHBIO have found common ground—or, perhaps more accurately, common water.

That is to say, both organizations are dedicated to protecting the Big Chico Creek ecosystem, though their approaches differ. BEC’s is one of advocacy and community engagement, touting the importance of water conservation through its new watershed program and preparing for the annual Big Chico Creek Cleanup in September. Meanwhile, FISHBIO’s work is science-based; researchers there are currently in the process of compiling data from their second fish count survey in as many years, intending to keep decision-makers informed on the overall health of the waterway.

By working parallel to one another, it’s natural that BEC and FISHBIO’s paths would cross.

“We reached out—we were really interested in the work FISHBIO was doing,” said Robyn DiFalco, BEC’s executive director, during a joint interview with Gabriel Kopp, director of operations at FISHBIO. “In terms of local scientific research, we realized that these are the guys doing it, and we’re the ones trying to advocate on behalf of the water bodies, the aquatic ecosystems.”

While there is no formal working relationship between BEC and FISHBIO, both DiFalco and Kopp said their respective organizations’ recent efforts to benefit the creek complement each other.

Before FISHBIO researchers snorkeled in the creek last August, it had been a decade since the fish populations there had been recorded. They did so again a couple weeks ago and, unlike last year, when the surveyors were limited to Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, they were granted permission from private landowners to go about 2 miles farther upstream. In addition to counting fish, the team mapped habitat all the way to the waterfall at Higgins Hole, which represents the uppermost barrier for migratory fish in the stream.

As with last year, researchers were on the lookout for five species of fish during the survey—rainbow trout, brown trout, Sacramento sucker, riffle sculpin and California roach. Though FISHBIO is still processing data, estimated numbers were down for all species except California roach.

“We’re not seeing quite as many rainbow trout, not as many brown trout and we also didn’t see any sculpin at all this year,” Kopp said.

But Kopp cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the condition of Big Chico Creek based on a two-year sample.

“You see lower or higher fish population estimates, and all you can do is guess at what’s affecting them,” he said. “Some people will point to the drought year, but there are larger trends. That’s what monitoring gives you—better insight as to whether we’re in a downward or upward trend.”

The researchers did note that water temperatures were a touch higher than last year, which can alter the fish count—species that prefer cold water may stay closer to the bottom of the creek, where they’re more difficult to spot by researchers snorkeling on the surface.

Kopp said the research team expects to post the official survey results online within two months; the company hopes the numbers will be used by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and the city of Chico when decisions are made regarding management of the waterway.

While BEC has long concerned itself with the health of Butte County’s watersheds, it only recently launched a program specific to Big Chico Creek, and the data gathered by FISHBIO will serve as important markers moving forward.

“We felt we should find out more about the work they’re doing and how we might be able to do our work based on their knowledge,” DiFalco said.

In February, BEC adopted the Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance, a coalition that suffered financially after state funding for such programs dried up. The alliance’s outreach and advocacy efforts fell neatly in line with BEC’s overarching goals.

As part of the watershed program, BEC has held workshops on things like gray-water conversion and rainwater catchment, and will host a series of informational sessions in the coming weeks on how state groundwater regulations will affect locals, water bonds and Gov. Jerry Brown’s controversial “twin tunnels” project.

DiFalco and Nani Teves, coordinator of the watershed program, said they hope California’s drought will serve as a wake-up call of sorts that will put the community on a path of conservation.

“The only way to get there,” Teves said, “is to have an engaged community with a strong environmental ethic.”

FISHBIO seems to agree with that philosophy.

“We’re always excited about getting the community to build relationships with the stream,” Kopp said. “It’s about establishing that greater connection between the community, the environment and the fish.”