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)


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.

Canopy Vegetation Monitoring Project

Megan Gaitan and Brian McIsaac

The Copeland Creek Monitoring Plan has grown from an ecological model formed at the start of the semester into a full blown project that now includes a baseline level of data and clearly outlined methods for monitoring in years to come. This investigation stems from eight attributes our class identified as the most important qualities we value in the creek: hydrology/channel morphology, native understory plant community, native canopy, aquatic community, avian community, the western pond turtle, steelhead, and wide-ranging/apex species.

With our love of plants and passions for biodiversity, our pair was tasked with creating objectives aimed at restoring the native canopy of the creek. The first one we formed was aimed at removing those willows (Salix spp.) that posed the largest threat to flooding the surrounding neighborhoods and replacing those trees with Alders and Cottonwoods. With data already having been collected form previous years on the willows, our group chose to focus on our second objective. This goal was targeted at improving the structure and composition of the canopy layer in order to provide more suitable wildlife habitat and more shade to cool water temperatures in the creek. With so many trees residing on the banks of the creek we were excited to get our hands dirty and learn about what’s going on in treetops.


Photo by C. Christian

As we’ve learned this semester, baseline data is key in measuring the success of restoration. You have to know where you want to go but you also need to remember where you started. And so, we identified three indicators that would help us and future classes assess progress. We determined canopy cover, density, and composition were the ways to gauge success. We evaluated the first indicator with a tool called a densiometer. This tool is as simple as it gets. It’s a hinged wooden box that opens up to reveal a convex reflective lens that is used to estimate overhead cover. Density and composition used species present in the creek and their diameters at breast height (DBH) to obtain information on the canopy’s structure that will determine where plantings of native tree species can be made that will improve weaker areas of the creek.

We couldn’t wait to get out on the creek and investigate current conditions of the canopy. Looking at riparian research methods in published journals allowed us to get an idea of how to design our sampling protocol in order to obtain substantial data. Along the four zones of the creek were six predetermined locations on the south bank where we would be collecting data. We marked these points and set up our transect facing north. Densiometer readings were taken at 3 m intervals beginning at 0 and ending at the edge of the bank. Each reading consisted of counts made in four directions: N, S, E, and W. Beginning again at the 0 m mark, we walked along the reel with a meter stick and recorded species names of trees whose bases fell within range of 1 m to the left and 1 m to the right of the line. Diameter at breast height was recorded for these species. If the diameter was less than 1, it was recorded as a sapling. Overhanging branches of trees whose bases were outside the range of the transect were ignored. This process was repeated at each of the six locations.

Data obtained from our bit of fieldwork was entered into Excel for calculations and graphing. Three figures were produced: percent shade at each transect, average diameter at breast height at each transect, and a scatter plot of average diameter at breast height against percent shade. Our results were not as informative as we hoped and they did not capture a full representation of the canopy or its structure and composition along the entire length of the creek. Much of the shade accounted for in the densiometer calculations of percent shade comes from the surrounding trees whose bases fell outside the range of the transect lines and shade levels of deciduous trees were not taken into account. Also, very few trees were encountered along the six transects. These factors make it difficult to understand what’s fully going on in the canopy. In the future, having a larger sample size will allow for a better understanding as well as collecting data from the opposing bank.

Despite challenges of not securing enough data to have more informative results, there were plenty of positive outcomes for our group. Together, we gained experience in experimental design, we learned how to practice various sampling techniques and data collection methods in the field, we learned how to quantify responses of canopy cover, species richness and composition, we have suggestions that can improve upon this protocol, and most importantly we learned firsthand how the restoration process is done. This set of skills we’ve developed through working with the campus on Copeland Creek is incredible. The challenges we faced in accomplishing this project will allow future classes to make great strides in successful restoration of the creek.

Copeland Creek Understory Restoration

By Jana Johnston and Jessi Laughlin

We were tasked with collecting base line data for the under story vegetation of Copeland Creek. To do this, we measured whole plot species richness as well as absolute and relative cover of herbaceous species by using a point intercept method and percent cover of shrub species using a line intercept method . 

Our two objectives were 1) to increase ground cover of native species to 25% or greater by 2020 and 2) to ensure a 1 meter radius around native plants with 0% Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) cover.

First, we located and mark all seven transect lines. The transect lines were established by previous classes so we were provided with GPS coordinates to locate these points. Once we found the point we marked each one by hammering a piece of PVC pipe into the ground and spray painting a bright pink arrow pointing to the location. Once we found all seven transects we moved on to data collection.


Megan Gaitan marking our first transect of the day. Photo © Jessi Laughlin

We used a point intercept method to measure herbaceous species. To do this we extended a measuring tape from the PVC pipe to the top of the creek bank facing north. Next we walked along the transect line with a flag dropping it at every half meter. At each point we recorded every species (or bare ground) the flag touched, as well as within a 5 cm radius of the flag. For any unknown species we encountered, we documented them on our “unknown species master list” and took a small sample to take back to the lab for identification.

We also collected whole plot species richness of herbaceous species. To do this we flipped a coin, student ID, car key or any other flippable item we had, to determine whether we would measure the east or west side of the transect. Once we decided this, we walked along the transect with a meter stick recording all species present within this area.


Transect line crossing an unknown species. Photo © Jessi Laughlin

To measure percentage of shrub cover we used a line intercept method. Using the same seven transects, we took the measurement (meter) of any shrub foliage overlapping our transect. From these measurements we were able to calculate percent cover of each species for each transect. We also measured the shrub height at every 2m along the transect.

 During this process we encountered several stabbing, stinging and poisonous plant species and acquired a few injuries along the way. We discovered, as we were expecting, that many sections of the creek have been over taken by invasive species particularly Himalayan blackberry. Himalayan blackberry is a huge problem because it can grow extremely fast and large, choking and shading out other plant species. For more information check out the problem species blog post. However we also found that many native plant species are thriving including snowberry, California grape and California rose.

Based off of our data it’s clear that in order to promote a healthier creek habitat the Sonoma State community and future Restoration Ecology classes need to focus on removing Himalayan blackberry especially around the native plants we are hoping to keep alive. Removing the Himalayan blackberry will allow for planting of more native species that will have a better chance of succeeding along the riparian corridor.

One of the most interesting parts of this process was seeing the dramatic shift in vegetation from the overgrown black patches to the bare redwood grove up stream.

Throughout this process we created a step by step lab guide for future students to use to collect the same data we did. As the creek restoration project continues, students will be able to document the progress of the understory vegetation and will hopefully see a shift from an invasive dominated habitat to a more healthy, fully-functioning native understory system.