Copeland Creek Restoration Project: Monitoring and Assessing Water Quality and the Aquatic Community

Copeland Creek Restoration Project: Monitoring and Assessing Water Quality and the Aquatic Community

By Niall Ogburn and Michael Lutz

This semester we were tasked with the responsibility of testing the water quality in Copeland Creek, as well as getting our hands dirty and finding out what kind or organisms live in the creek (and if they’re native or non-native). To test water quality, we took water samples of the creek to test for pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, and temperature levels, all of which are great indicators of the health and well being of the benthic macro invertebrate and fish community that lives in the creek. Often times, monitoring the quality of these factors can tell you a lot about the structure of the aquatic community without physically assessing the species. However, we also assessed the community in the creek to try and get a good picture of the base of the food chain and the organisms that support larger aquatic members of the community such as steelhead and various amphibians.


Satellite photo of the Environmental Technology Center and Copeland Creek. Our study took place in the upper pool marked by the pin.

Our two original objectives were to 1) bring water pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and nitrate in compliance with California legislative standards by 2020, and 2) reduce the mosquito fish population by 60% by 2020. These objectives were created before any kind of monitoring took place, and were adjusted as we embarked on our project.

Testing the quality of the water for our first objective involved the use of a few different types of instruments that we had never used before. This was a surprisingly fun experience learning how to use instruments that are actually used out in the field by professionals to measure elements in water quality that reveal important information. We used an instrument called the LabQuest II, a small cell-phone sized piece of technology that has ports for varying attachment probes that measure temperature, nitrate, dissolved oxygen, etc.. The probes are inserted into the water for a period of time until the measurements of the water appear on the screen of the gadget. We used this tool to exclusively measure the dissolved oxygen levels and temperature in the creek. For nitrate and pH, we used an aquarium test kit that involved getting water samples and inserting a test strip into them and comparing the color of the strip to a chart. The use of the aquarium test kit was really an act of desperation more than anything else. As great as the LabQuest II was for measuring water quality, some attachment probes revealed themselves to be defective, so using the test kit was just a way of circumventing the problem.


Underwater photo of the top pool that our study was conducted in. The dark drainage pipe is partly visible in the left background. (Photo credit: Lutz)

Our results were nothing less than astonishing. Taking a look around Copeland Creek, it is very evident how much human activity there is in the dark, and at times disgusting creek. Trash is everywhere, and when I say trash, I mean hypodermic needles, old pieces of clothing, and an insanely large amount of plastic waste. Surely a place with this high amount of human pollution could not possibly hold relatively clean water. And yet, this is exactly what we found: fresh clean water that, on paper, seems good enough to drink (still, I wouldn’t recommend it). This was such a joy to find, especially sense this level of quality was already in line with our objective of bringing quality in compliance with California state legislative standards. The only problem was that according to the state’s clean water act, there is no compliancy standard. Our new objective is to keep these conditions at levels that are adequate for steelhead habitat.


The large upper pool (Photo credit: Lutz)

As exciting as these findings were, they were nothing when compared to the findings found from our assessment of the aquatic community. Our initial assumptions were similar to our assumptions about the quality of the water. How many species worth caring about could possibly call these trash infested pools home?

As it turned out, quite a few.


The unidentified elusive fish. (photo credit: Lutz)

Finding these critters was no easy task. As we walked into the creek on our first day of field work and began looking around, we saw no signs of promise. It took upwards of an hour, using primitive and simplistic methods to get a few Isopoda, a water skeeter, a baby crawfish, and a worm. Not the big haul of species we were expecting. We observed plenty of fish, which our professor suspected were invasive mosquito fish, and we already had plans to use traps to catch a large proportion, with an eye to their removal. We had also heard rumors of a potentially large fish living in the drainage pipe of the highest pool, and even had one blurry picture provided by Caroline Christian confirming its existence. On day one, however, no evidence of the elusive fish was found.

At this point, hopes were not high. It seemed that the only species using these small withering pools were either invasive fish, hardy uncharismatic invertebrates, and a ghost fish. But still we trudged on. On day two of our collection we managed to add two unknown water beetles to our list. We later identified these as walking water beetles, but it was still nothing to get too excited about.


The fish traps used to collect the sculpin and three-spine stickleback. (Photo credit: Lutz)

On day three of collection, we decided to implement the traps we had made from 2L plastic bottles, to see if they would be an effective means of catching those invasive mosquito fish. Baited with old dirty chicken, we left the traps to soak in the water overnight for 24 hours. What we pulled up from the depths will forever be in my mind.

Gazing through the plastic bottles, two fish could be seen. One was large (considering the size of the traps entrance) with a big meaty head and a tapering body. It was marbled brown in color and had milky glazed eyes . . . the fish was dead, presumably from lack of oxygen in the trap. Its existence was nonetheless an extremely exciting realization that the creek was home to a variety of fish species. The second fish in the trap was small (about an inch), grey, had three spines sticking out of its back, and was alive. Unfortunately in our ignorance, we assumed this little guy was a mosquito fish that had made its way into the trap, so no thought was given when we preserved the fish in ethanol.

What we later discovered was that the fish was really a California native called a coastal three-spine stickleback. If we had known the fish to be native, we would have released it back into the water to live a happy life, but, as my father always tells me, you live and you learn. The second fish we found was, astonishingly, another California native called a sculpin. These discoveries were very exciting, but more excitement was yet to come.

After the thrills of finding native fish, we decided to get to work catching some of the mosquito fish that were observed swimming in the creek. These were easily caught using an aquarium style dip net. With a little bit of patience, we managed to catch a juvenile and adult fish. They were about 2.5 inches, long and sleek looking, deeply indented caudal fin, greenish silver with a black band on their lateral line, and a closer look revealed that they were not, in fact, mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis). 


California three-spine stickleback and Sculpin (Photo credit: Lutz)


It took us a great deal of time and investigating to find the identity of our mystery fish. Only through the help of Sarah Phillips of the Marin Resource Conservation Department (RCD), and local fish enthusiast, were we able to I.D. the fish as Hesperoleucus symmetricus, more commonly know as the California roach; a native fish.

This finding felt unreal. Not only to find a third native fish that makes up the majority of the fish community in the pool we assessed, but also that our second objective called for the reduction in their population by 60%. This was a lesson well learned: always check the identity of your problem species before implementing reduction plans.


California roach collected from copeland creek (Photo credit: Lutz)


Mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis) (Photo credit:


As we were leaving our from our last day of field work a couple weeks later, one final surprise revealed itself from the darkness. The large mystery fish, suspended in the water column, swam casually out of the large drainage pipe. I tried getting pictures with my phone of the fish from above, but they turned out just as blurry as the pictures shown to us in the beginning of our project. Then I remembered I had a waterproof case on my phone. I stuck my phone in the water and took some pictures. It was through these pictures that we were able to identify the fish as Lepomis cyanellus, a green sunfish. Although “Sunny” is an exotic species that is most likely eating a few California roach, we have decided that Sunny is cool.


Sunny the green sunfish (photo credit: Lutz)


Documenting Our Feathery Friends in Copeland Creek

ghitten by: Beverly Wong

One might notice the huge contrast between the atmosphere of  the different parts of Sonoma State’s campus. While there are herds of students buzzing and rushing about to get to their next class in the main area by the infamous ‘Bacon and Eggs’ structure, the atmosphere quickly turns peaceful and serene when they hit the outskirts of the campus — specifically where Copeland Creek crosses through our campus. The chitter chatter of students about the stresses of last-minute assignments and the massive deck of flashcards they have to memorize for an exam quickly becomes replaced by the squawks, chirps, quacks, and other birdy sounds once you hit Copeland Creek.


Copeland Creek

Copeland Creek (©Wendy St. John)

In fact, birds are a large indicator of ecosystem health due to their high sensitivity to ecological changes in a habitat and the large connection between habitat components and different avian species. Clearly, it was easy to tell that birds make up a significant part of the Copeland Creek community, with all the bird noises in the background. With the restoration of Copeland Creek in mind, it was crucial that our group focused on the avian community to document the various bird species,  the abundance of the birds, and to compare these results with the reports of species that were spotted in the creek years ago. This information will become incredibly useful in future restoration projects on Copeland Creek because you won’t know what needs to be done if you have no idea what is out there!

First, our group got together and created a game plan of how we were going to approach this task. In the beginning, it seemed straightforward.  First, you put on your shoes, hop out the door, and just go out there and point out every bird you encounter — right? Well, yes and no. We had to create a very specific procedure on how to record all of this bird data so that it would represent the avian community as accurately as it can. Therefore, we decided to record data four times in total, twice in the morning, when birds are known to be the most active, and twice in the afternoon.

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 10.49.48 AM.pngSince our feathery friend was being difficult in terms of having a picture taken of it, here is the exact picture we looked at on Google Images where we officially determined that the bird we were looking at was indeed the Spotted Towhee! © David Powell



With our plan set in stone, we were ready to begin. On our first morning, Paolo and Amy came extra prepared with the Merlin Bird ID App (free in the Apple App and Google Play Store) downloaded onto a phone, and pages of Google Image pictures of the most common species found in the creek. This came extra handy as it helped us identify lots of birds right then and there because you can never depend on the memory of a stressed out college student. It was pretty difficult at first because we were still familiarizing ourselves with common bird species, focusing the binoculars in on a bird before it flies away, jotting down the description of unidentifiable species, tallying the number of individual bird calls we heard, and dealing with the most frustrating fact of all — birds are exceptionally good at not staying still when you want them to be still. But after a trial run or two, we managed to have a steady system and were able to document and identify some bird species on our own! For example, there was a cute little bird with beady red eyes rustling around in a bush. Right as we saw it, we played around on our phone, flipping through numerous pictures of birds on Google Images, trying to identify it on the Merlin Bird ID App for a good solid five minutes until we finally concluded that it was a Spotted Towhee!

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 10.51.52 AM.pngPicture from What our group will potentially look like when we are finished with this project.

The rest of our walks became less stressful as we got more comfortable with the routine of documenting the birds we found along the Creek. After all of the successful identifications and data analyses, we were confident that we were on our way to start our professional birding company.

Catching Critters in the Creek

Written by: Amy Unruh

After weeks of logistical issues, we were finally able to get ahold of the Sherman traps from the biology department that we would be using to capture and analyze the small mammals along Copeland Creek. With the guidance of Biology professor Wendy St. John, we set out on a frigid Sunday evening to set our traps. Because the features of the creek change so drastically as you walk from one end to the other, we knew we had to spread the traps out along the length of the creek so that we could capture the full spectrum of habitat types. Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 10.43.38 AM.pngWe placed two traps in each zone, and four traps in zone one, which is the largest.

In order to assure that our friends would have somewhere pleasant to stay for the night, we arranged each Sherman trap with an irresistible helping of Nature Valley granola and a good-sized wad of cotton to make a bed with. We sought out places along the creek that were fairly inconspicuous— so that passersbys wouldn’t be able to find them without looking around a little bit (this backfired on us the following morning). We hid the traps under shrubby plants, in blackberry bushes, and in small divots along the bank. It didn’t take very long to set up- after about an hour we were done; all we could do was wait patiently for the following morning.

7:00 A.M. on a Monday and we had all gathered at the base of the creek, eager to see what we found. We were in high spirits as we walked down the creek bed and searched for our first two traps that we’d left in the first zone. It didn’t take long to realize our mistake– we had never taken photos of where exactly we left the traps. The first ones were the hardest to find. When we finally found the traps in the first zone, we were eager to see some critters. As Beverly picked up the trap- ready to dump its contents into the plastic bag, the rest of us waited anxiously. Then we watched as Beverly’s face sprouted a look of disappointment and we unanimously understood without words that we hadn’t caught anything.

We continued along the length of the creek, searching for our remaining traps. One by Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 10.46.27 AM.pngone, we found the traps, picked them up, and accepted we hadn’t caught anything. With each empty trap, we increasingly understood that the likelihood of catching any mammals was very low. When we got to the last trap, we looked at one another in defeat and exited the creek bed.

We walked back to the supply room to return the traps and pondered why we hadn’t caught any animals. Perhaps it was too cold? Maybe the traps weren’t sensitive enough?

Nonetheless, our group learned about the complications that are inevitable when it comes to live animal traps. We had a good time overall and were each able to pick-up a new technique, which will be really valuable in the future.

Who’s your neighbor? Wildlife Monitoring at SSU

Written by: Danielle Wegner

Another viewpoint we wanted to incorporate when examining the Copeland Creek is Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 11.10.50 AM.pnghow species with large ranges utilize the creek that cuts through the north end of Sonoma State. We grouped this category into the wide range apex species, which incorporates species such as mountain lion, bobcat, deer, river otters, and western pond turtles. These species are considered “umbrella” species that maintain a wide habitat and can help assess the health of the surrounding community. Often conservation management programs that focus on umbrella species will benefit many other species that share the same area. Our first step was to determine what species we had utilizing Copeland creek. We set up four camera traps, loaned to us by the Sonoma Land Trust, along the creek, one in each of four designated zone sites of our study. These cameras were set up over a long weekend and we were delighted to see the different wildlife that share the campus with us students. Despite not seeing bobcats or river otters, we cannot rule out the potential for them to utilize the creek. A more extensive camera trap study spread out over the year would be beneficial to get a greater scope of the wide range species that may or may not use the area. Inference can also be drawn upon the previous Copeland Creek master plan, along with citizen science reporting’s to better determine what wildlife are present within the area.  We also performed visual survey for tracks and scat across the four zones to help identify what wildlife were in the area.

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 10.41.28 AM.pngThe western pond turtle was another species we wanted to draw attention to due to its conservation status as a species of concern in California. Western pond turtles utilize not only waterways but they also migrate to nearby highland areas for nesting purposes, meaning they met our criteria of a wide ranging species.  Our first step was to determine if western pond turtles were present on campus. This was done by visual surveys in which turtles were counted at the campus lake adjacent to the stream during the basking hours of the afternoon. We next wanted to determine the population dynamic by mark recapturing the turtles to determine gender and age category by setting up a hoop trap, a safe way to capture the turtles without causing harm. We were able to confirm western pond turtles are present on Sonoma State campus, however due to the cooler fall season our counts were not very high and no turtles were captured in our trap. We hope in the future this monitoring program can continue over a longer period of time that would include the different seasons.

Blogging with Frogs- Acoustic Monitoring of Riparian Frogs

Written By: Paolo Solari

Frogs are both terrestrial and aquatic animals, which means they live both on the land and in the water, making all parts of the riparian corridor and creek potentially critical habitat.


Pacific Chorus Frog. Photo © W. St. John

Pacific Tree Frogs are noisy critters, especially the males, which make relatively loud breeding calls. Additionally, each frog’s call has a fairly unique tone, making it pretty easy to distinguish between individuals. With this in mind, we decided that a call survey (documenting the total number of frogs heard while walking the length of Copeland Creek) would be a great way to determine the Pacific Tree Frog abundance in the area. Unfortunately, things did not go quite like we had planned.

Amy and I met by the ETC building at around 6:30 pm on a Monday night. With a tally clicker in our hand, and hope in our hearts, we began our walk down Copeland Creek.  By the time we had reached the end, we heard a total of three frogs.  As it turns out, frog activity is highly dependent upon temperature, rainfall, and relative humidity. This cold, dry night provided less than ideal conditions to properly account for frogs in the area. As the Fall season slowly turns into Winter, these conditions only worsen. In other words, we were too late. While Pacific Tree Frog breeding season is technically from November to July, they do prefer warmer nights.

Even though we did not hear as many frogs as we had hoped, we do not consider our attempt a failure. Learning proper sampling techniques is not something that we take for granted, as we realize this is something that we can take with us into our future. We also realize that our experience may help direct future endeavors in the right direction.

Hide and Seek in the Creek – Coverboards

By: Paolo Solari

Coverboards have been used in amphibian and other terrestrial vertebrate studies for many years, and can be a great way to determine which animals are present in an area. Coverboards offer suitable nest sites for terrestrial vertebrates (mostly amphibians) and offer protection from predators. They also are useful in that they reduce nesting-site competition. With all this in mind, we thought that coverboards would be a great way to determine what kind of animals, as well as how many, were in our very own backyard in Copeland Creek. Unfortunately, things did not go quite like we had planned. I’ll talk about that a little later, though. First of all, here is what we did:

Our first step was getting coverboards. Wendy helped a lot with that. In fact, she bought us 8 of them! The next step was to distribute them (relatively) evenly throughout the length of Copeland Creek on campus. Our plan was to place two coverboards in each section of the creek. Danielle and I lugged the 8 coverboards to the eastern end of the bridge near the footbridge, where we placed our first coverboard. Despite occasionally getting stuck in those pesky Himalayan Blackberry bushes, we made our way westward down the creek, towards the ETC building. Our goal was to place the coverboards in cool, moist locations. We also thought it would be best to hide them as much as possible to avoid potential disturbance from larger animals or people exploring the creek (this would end up making it somewhat difficult to find all of the coverboards). After we placed all of our coverboards, our next step was to wait for critters to move in.

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 10.32.52 AM.png

Photo source: Paolo Solari

Two weeks later, Beverly and I checked the coverboards on a foggy Monday morning. We slowly lifted the first one, only to find the ground underneath completely uninhabited (save for the occasional tiny arthropod). Despite finding no signs of amphibious life under our first coverboard, we did not lose hope. However, this desolate trend continued all the way to our very last coverboard, in which we found nothing but a couple of pill bugs.


Before starting our experiment, we knew that most coverboards need at least three months to establish (and can sometimes take up to a year). Obviously we were working with a much shorter time frame.  Our mindset going in was that we most likely would not find anything, and that turned out to be the case.  However, we still learned sampling methods that we would not have learned otherwise, and that is not something that we take for granted. It was also nice to more intimately familiarize ourselves with our own backyard in Copeland Creek, a place that we have, and will continue to spend a lot of our time.

Problem Species

Manuel Hernandez and Julianne Bradbury

Most problems are relative, right? In an urban creek like Copeland Creek, certain species are bigger problems than others. The Restoration Ecology class at Sonoma State has detected a whole spectrum of problem species living in and around the creek that might not be obvious until you learn about them.

The most common way for a species to cause problems is to be “invasive” – an invasive species reproduces profusely and outcompetes other species, reducing or even eliminating them from the local environment. This common threat to biodiversity can come in either plant or animal form, and in Copeland Creek it comes in both of those forms. First, we took a close look at the creek banks and surrounding area for plant species that threaten the quality of the habitat. Second, we set some clever (and exceedingly gentle) “traps” to discover what some of our most adorable problem predators are up to.

One of the most common and easy to spot invasive plants in Sonoma County is Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus), a strong, fast growing shrub with wicked thorns and delicious berries. Another common perpetrator is fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), an aromatic plant with fluffy, dissected leaves and  tall flower stalks. Many other invasive plants found in Copeland Creek are ornamental plants that have escaped from landscaped areas on the Sonoma State campus; these include maytens (Maytenus boaria), tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), plums (Prunus spp.), black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.).


Fennel is a common invasive plant in Sonoma County, CA. Photo by Stanley Spencer, 2009.



A close-up of the rigid stalk and impressive thorns of the Himalayan blackberry plant, a major invasive species in Copeland Creek, Rohnert Park, CA. Photo by Zoya Akulova, 2009.

Before we can begin to control the populations of invasive plants in the creek, we needed to document just how widespread they are – this will help us determine how successful our removal efforts have been from year to year. We moved slowly but surely along the banks of Copeland Creek over 4 days in October 2016, estimating the percent cover of Himalayan blackberry and noting the presence of every species of invasive plant we could identify. We used this data to generate maps depicting the state of invasive plants along the SSU campus reach of the creek, which will be used to track the successes of our restoration efforts for years to come.


Domestic cats are one of the largest threats to small mammal and avian biodiversity. Even well-fed house cats will kill animals simply to kill. To assess the cat population we joined with the two other groups using wildlife cameras, and Tony Nelson from the Sonoma Land Trust who kindly loaned us five cameras and taught us how to set them up.


Tony Nelson Demonstrating the Proper Way to Set Up a Wildlife Camera. Photo by Wendy St John

We selected four locations, one in each zone and set the cameras to take three pictures, one every three seconds, per trigger event. The cameras were left out for a 72 hour period before being collected.

Our first cat was seen in Zone 2, and only appeared in one of the three photos.


An overexposed picture of a Blurry Cat. Photo by HCO SG550

Again in Zone 2 we captured what looks like the tail of the same cat.


The tail of a Cat. Photo by HCO SG550

The camera in Zone 3 captured a black cat in two separate  trigger events within the same day.

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While we did not capture many cats on our cameras, we do know that cats use the creek regularly and future camera traps left for multiple, longer periods could show a much larger population.