Creek watchers to agencies: We need to talk

One torn-up streamside minus much-needed communication among state agencies added up to angry creek lovers last month. Now, as more details are emerging about how the state Department of Water Resources felt it was all right to go around the usual notification and permitting procedures for clearing debris from along Big Chico Creek in the name of flood control, everyone agrees on one thing: They need to talk.

In early March, a tracked vehicle uprooted vegetation, 10 feet of dirt was sent into the creek and soil broke free as part of continuing erosion that environmentalists and the state Department of Fish and Game say will hurt the path of threatened spring-run salmon now migrating through there.

But even as blame for the damage is tracked, some good appears to have come out of it, said Suzanne Gibbs, president of the Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance.

She said the incident has opened up “new lines of communication” with DWR about what constitutes an emergency.

Keith Swanson, chief of the DWR’s Flood Project Maintenance Branch Division of Flood Control Management, agrees—to a point. “We’re pledging to do a better job of communicating,” he said. “I think Sutter Yard [the local DWR office] was correct in their classification that it was an emergency out there. In hindsight, certainly they should have given Fish and Game a phone call.”

In a March 15 investigation report, Warden Will Bishop of Fish and Game’s Paradise Patrol District looked into whether Sections 1601 and 5650 of the Fish and Game Code were violated but ultimately left the legal determination to higher-ups. Bishop—who initially said the work was clearly illegal—did not return a call for comment by press time.

In his report, Bishop related that the excavation work was directed by a DWR flood maintenance supervisor, who told him she considered the eroding creekside to be an emergency and thus not required to be reported to Fish and Game. But another source, the superintendent of flood control for Butte County, told Bishop the situation was “definitely not an emergency.”

Swanson, of DWR, said in a telephone interview from Sacramento that the reported damage to the creekside was from erosion related to the debris, not their crew’s work. Had their workers not gone in, the debris—including a downed tree that was attracting neighborhood children—could have blocked the creek even further and threatened public safety.

It was residents of the area along Bidwell Avenue in West Chico who notified the alliance and another citizens’ group, Streaminders, which in turn alerted the state on March 6.

Gibbs said DWR would now do some grading with smaller equipment, after which the alliance will plant willow trees there.

The first joint meeting of the DWR, Fish and Game and the stream-watching groups will be held May 24 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Chico City Council chambers. A likely topic for discussion will be how future incidents can be averted.

"DWR watched that site for a number of weeks while the buildup of debris occurred," Gibbs said. "If they had gone in by hand a week earlier and cleared out some of that debris, [or] if they had done a different project three years earlier, it would never have gotten to what they perceived as emergency status."