Fish tales

Upper Bidwell Park’s fish ladder restoration project is one step closer to boosting salmon runs

The dirt roads, giant boulders, and flowing water at Iron Canyon are not ideal for a construction site, but the Chico State Research Foundation is working with a laundry list of other agencies to start the project to restore the fish ladders above Salmon Hole in Bidwell Park.

In a Chico City Council conference room Tuesday evening (July 22), members of the Iron Canyon Fish Ladder Project provided an update on the status of the project along Big Chico Creek and gave the public a chance to ask questions or voice opinions. However, in attendance were more staff members than community members interested in the history and plans for the site.

The project includes the partial demolition of 18 weirs and the building of six new ones. The concrete to construct the weirs, a series of pools leading upstream, will be dark gray to resemble the basalt boulders that currently exist in the creek.

Iron Canyon’s original fish ladder was built in 1958 to help salmon head upstream to cooler pools above Salmon Hole during years of low water flow, thus ensuring the fish could spawn in the fall. Over the years the ladder has fallen into disrepair and the foundation is working with the city of Chico, which owns the land; Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance, the organization providing public outreach; and other agencies on the restoration project.

In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed the final design for the rehabilitation of the fish ladder. The agency then provided a grant to the Chico State Research Foundation for $250,000 to conduct an environmental review, obtain permits, and develop grant funding for construction.

Susan Strachan, the environmental project manager for Chico State’s College of Engineering, Technology and Computer Science, hopes that the environmental review, permits and applications for grants can be completed for less than $250,000, so that money left over can be used for construction.

The estimated cost to restore the ladder is $1.8 million. Strachan, also the primary grant writer, said that the project will apply for funding from whichever agencies are requesting grant applications at the time.

In the words of Strachan, the project is “unique” for a number of different reasons: The site is located in an area heavily used for recreational use, it is located in a deep canyon that makes it difficult for workers and large equipment to get in and out, and redirecting water flow is a project in itself. These factors led to two concerns.

The first was the geological feasibility, because the initial plan talked about blasting rocks that could ruin the ladder. The second was the possibility of having to remove a tree blocking the passageway needed for a large crane. Further research concluded that survey pins can be used instead blasting, and Mother Nature took care of the other concern when January’s storms toppled the tree.

The next immediate steps for the project are the completion of environmental documents, which is expected at the beginning of August for public comment, and a site tour on Aug. 23 at 8 p.m.

When asked at the meeting what would be her dream completion time for this project, Strachan replied, “Best of all possible worlds would be next July, but that’s a long shot. We’ll see what happens.”