Over the past two weeks, resource agencies and a landowner on Peacock Creek, a tributary of the Smith River, collaborated to install and tweak woody debris structures to bring back the fish.
“As an old forester, I feel a sense of stewardship for my resources — I want to take care of the woods,” said Garey Slaughter, who allowed the Del Norte County Resource Conservation District to do the project on his property off North Bank Road, which includes a long section of Peacock Creek.
Slaughter worked for the Forest Service for decades and acquired the property with friends from the service in 1982 in order to practice reforestation techniques.
The property is now dominated by alders and other late seral species, but it was dominated by giant conifers including old-growth redwoods before it was clear-cut in the 1970s, Slaughter said.
On Wednesday, a huge excavator picked up a fallen 30-foot-long alder tree and gingerly slipped it in between a small gap in living, upright alders, wedging it in place in the creek bed. A redwood stump found on the property was placed on the other side of the creek across from the alder to add more nooks and crannies.
Slaughter showed the workers where they could find old-growth redwood stumps for their structures. Redwood is ideal because it hardly rots in water.
Two years ago, 10 wood-debris structures were installed on Slaughter’s property, but this past week the Del Norte RCD had enough funding to go back in and tweak the structures after they had endured a couple high-water winters, said project manager Zack Larson.
“It was a successful project, but streams are dynamic; we learn every time we do it,” Larson said. It’s hard to anticipate how high flows will affect the structures, so Larson appreciates the opportunity to improve.
They also added one more structure for good measure.
The idea is to create logjams that mimic natural conditions without creating barriers to migration, Larson said.
“We’re trying to increase the carrying capacity of these creeks so they can handle more fish,” Larson said.
“Spider log” structures are one example of the desired end result. Several logs span out from a common point that holds the logs in place, resembling spider legs.
The large logs installed are meant to catch small branches and leaves floating downstream to create complex habitat.
“It’s like a catcher’s mitt,” Larson said.
These woody debris structures create the pools and hiding places that anadromous fish prefer for spawning, especially the threatened coho salmon.
Coho in Peacock Creek were listed as a key population to improve or maintain in the “Recovery Strategy for California Coho Salmon” prepared by the state Department of Fish and Game.
That document also recommended the removal of a concrete culvert that for decades made it nearly impossible for fish to migrate into most of Peacock Creek upstream from the barrier at Tan Oak Drive.
Nine years ago, Del Norte County completed an award-winning fish passage project to replace the culvert with almost $300,000 from the Department of Fish and Game’s Fisheries Restoration Grant Program.
That project was led by the Five Counties Salmonid Conservation Program, which includes Del Norte, Humboldt, Trinity, Siskiyou and Mendocino counties, and had identified the culvert on Peacock as high-priority for migration barriers.
The replacement culvert, a row of v-shaped wiers that allow fish to swim upstream at any flow, opened up huge stretches of new habitat. Once Peacock was open for spawning, it made sense for DFG’s Fisheries Restoration Grant program to start restoring the creek.
“They’ve invested this much money in fish passage, so now that access is available, it makes sense to improve habitat upstream,” Larson said.
Del Norte RCD applied for the funding for the wood loading project from DFG.
Their efforts seem to be working — at least anecdotally. In the 30 years he’s owned the property Slaughter had never seen a fish larger than his hand, but after the initial structures were installed he saw a steelhead at least 20 inches long.
Historically, Peacock Creek was home to coho and chinook salmon, steelhead trout and coastal cutthroat trout.
Carefully placing logs in streams isn’t common work for an excavator operator, but Larson said Rocky Brown performed deftly.
Logging operations obviously removed trees that would have naturally fallen in the creek, but up until the 1980s, even fisheries biologists advocated for taking wood out of the water. A paradigm shift in the fishery biology field occurred in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and now projects like the one on Slaughter’s property are fairly common, Larson said.
Similar projects are ongoing for small tributaries of the lower Klamath River and the entire watershed in the Mill Creek Acquisition of Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park.
Replanting is also usually part of stream restoration projects. The California Conservation Corps conducted revegetation on Slaughter’s property by planting coast redwoods and cedars.
The fish passage projects also received contributions from Del Norte County Development Department, the Coastal Conservancy, Winzler & Kelly Consulting Engineers, and the Del Norte County Road Division, which built them with assistance from Hemmingsen Construction Company for the concrete work.