Iron Canyon fish passage project will benefit native fish, wildlife, plants using Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER) is pleased to announce that a decades-old vision to restore access to critical spawning and rearing habitat along Ótakim Séwi (Big Chico Creek) is finally coming to fruition, through a key partnership with California Trout, the Mechoopda Indian Tribe, Chico State’s Interdisciplinary Wildland Management Masters Program and other partners that have been recommended for funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In a highly competitive nationwide grant process, NOAA is recommending funding for a project that will remove a fish passage barrier in Iron Canyon, upstream from Salmon Hole—restoring access to more than 8 miles of native fish habitat and critically needed spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead and spring-run Chinook salmon in the upper reaches of Big Chico Creek, including cold water habitat critical for climate resilience. 

Because these ocean-going migratory fish are a keystone species, the entire ecosystem of upper Bidwell Park will be revitalized as fish populations rebound, ultimately benefiting raptors, bears and other natural fish predators and bringing nutrients up from the ocean to enrich the soil and native plants. Ecological Reserves Director Eli Goodsell (Criminal Justice, ’07; MA, Environmental Policy and Planning, ’11) said this project represents a long-term commitment to ensure the biodiversity and health of Big Chico Creek for decades to come.

“Everything we do at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve centers on the health of the watershed,” said Goodsell. “We are excited to be collaborating with the Mechoopda Indian Tribe and CalTrout on this project to help bring back healthy native fish populations, which will in turn support birds of prey, mammalian predators and will ultimately impact multiple aspects of the food web.”

The Iron Canyon fish ladder was constructed in the 1940s to support fish in their upstream journey to colder waters. But after an earthquake many years ago, boulders fell from the canyon wall that destroyed the ladder and blocked their passage forward. Municipal, nonprofit and other agencies, including Chico State, have pursued many plans to restore the passage over the years, but funding remained an ongoing barrier. Today, with an ecosystems-based approach, this multi-agency project will restore access, reintroduce native fishes to historical habitats and conduct extensive public outreach to share the purpose, progress and outcomes of supporting this critical freshwater habitat.

“Being able to open up this corridor to allow the fish to have a fighting chance to breed and create the next generation is huge,” said He-Lo Ramirez (Biology, ’19; Credential, ’20; MS, Wildland Management, ’22), tribal member and Director of Environmental Planning and Protection for the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria. “Anadromous salmonids are an intrinsic part of who we are as a people, both culturally and spiritually, and as we revitalize our culture and lifeways it is our duty to revitalize our salmon kin who have supported us since time immemorial. Their one and only pathway in life isn’t extinction. They have an alternative. We can help them out.”

In the first phase of the Iron Canyon Fish Passage Project slated to begin summer 2023, an engineering firm will work on project design and conduct hydrological and topographic surveys, and a local environmental consulting firm will work on permitting and planning tasks. On-the-ground work, which could begin as early as 2024, will entail removing an 80-year-old non-functioning fishway which currently completely blocks fish passage in all but the highest water years. Additionally, a section of the stream channel will be reconfigured to mimic a natural channel form that will be passable by salmon and steelhead even at low stream flows and will require no future maintenance.

“I’m excited to be a part of this team, taking an ecosystem-based approach to restore the native fish populations in Big Chico Creek,” said Damon Goodman, CalTrout’s Shasta-Klamath Regional Director. “NOAA has identified this project as a top priority to recover spring-run Chinook salmon in the Central Valley. We will be working with our partners to make sure the project also benefits the entire watershed and all its inhabitants, including the people of Chico who are devoted to Bidwell Park.” 

The project also has a strong community outreach and education component. A community education plan is being developed and implemented by a student in Chico State’s Interdisciplinary Wildland Management Masters Program. This plan includes significant public engagement and K-12 programming providing benefits to Chico State, Butte Community College, K-12 students and the public. Located in a municipal park that is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year, this project has the ability to reach a diverse audience, providing insight into Traditional Ecological Knowledge practices, habitat restoration, and fish passage remedies with support of the Mechoopda Tribe.

“The Mechoopda will also be involved in the educational aspect of the project. The end goal for us is to give our kids a sense of connection to this place and to our ancestors, who lived here and were stewards of the land and waters,” said Kyle McHenry, Mechoopda Indian Tribe cultural director and Tribal historic preservation officer. “Salmon have sustained our people for thousands of years and they are the reason we are alive today. They are a part of our DNA. Being able to see this project go through to help out the salmon and to see them thrive is paramount for the Tribe.”

In addition to NOAA’s listing, the fish passage project is considered a top priority in the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan and in CDFW’s Fish Passage Priorities list. CalTrout completed a similar fish passage project in 2021 in a neighboring watershed at Eagle Canyon in Battle Creek, providing a successful model for this project.

“I’m really happy to be working with CalTrout, the Mechoopda Tribe, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and the City of Chico,” Goodsell added. “We might all look at things differently, but at the end of the day we have a shared goal. Organizations, agencies and nonprofits need to recognize that we can support each other to bring about a win across the board. I think that’s what we have to realize to solve challenges in the American West.”

The viability of this project would not be possible without the stewardship that has been conducted on the BCCER for the last 20 years, Goodsell noted. Through fuels reduction, habitat restoration and other initiatives, the BCCER has ensured the upper reaches of the creek remain viable territory for keystone species.

Habitat restoration and ecological preservation are pillars of BCCER’s mission. It is currently engaged in a study in partnership with the California Department of Transportation to determine the feasibility of a wildlife crossing on Highway 32, as well as a feasibility study in partnership with California Department of Fish and Wildlife regarding the reintroduction of elk to higher elevations of the Butte County foothills.

For more information and to watch a video about the project, please go to the Iron Canyon Fish Passage Project on the CalTrout website.