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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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). 

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

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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.

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

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Mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis) (Photo credit: Gallery.NANFA.org)

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Monitoring Plan for the Channel Morphology of Copeland Creek

By: Jordan DeSilva and Jasmin Perdue

The Plan

Channel Morphology of Copeland Creek–that was our task.  What did that mean?  What do we measure?  Where do we start?  Those were the thoughts racing through our minds upon our assignment.  The semester long project clearly began with research research research, which is always the most tedious task, but provided us with all the basis to develop our plan for monitoring the channel morphology, which if you don’t know is the  physical shape and geological composition of the creek channel. Our research led us to two monitoring protocols that we found relevant and decided to implement on the creek–cobble size distribution, which would lend us information about water velocities that may effect erosion rates; and creek cross sections, that would give us information to compare to future years in order to observe the ever changing channel.

Cobbles

The thought of counting hundreds of cobbles was nothing short of exciting. With calipers in hand, we walked the creek, surveying for an interesting spot. We laid down a transect line, and got comfortable, to record for what would be the next hour and half of rock measuring. Picking up rock after slimy, cold rock we measured the three axes of each rock. With aching backs, we finished measuring the final rock until we called it a day after finishing only one transect.

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Data sheet for our cobble size monitoring © Jasmin Perdue

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Jasmin measuring one of one many along a transect line. © Jordan DeSilva

The next day we marched back out to the creek, determined to finish the next two transects. Just when we thought cobble measuring couldn’t get any more exciting, it did! We had just laid out our second transect line when a swarm of Sonoma County Sheriffs came through, surveying the area for evidence concerning the murdered body recently found on campus.

Meeting with Michelle

Michelle Goman (who totally rocks!) came to our rescue when we realized we didn’t have a clue about what we were doing.  We walked into her office and this ray of sunshine whipped out all sorts of equipment in her tiny cubicle of an office, like she does this everyday of her life.

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Practice with the auto-level equipment. ©Jordan DeSilva

She had us test out the equipment a couple of times and we all acted like we had the procedures down pact, but really we didn’t even begin to understand the foreign language she was speaking. When we finally got out in the field and realized we still didn’t know what we were doing, she came out to guide us through the process once again. Without Michelle, who knows if we would’ve gotten anything done!

Cross Sections

Oh man, did we have some problems with the cross sections. Thanks to Michelle it only took three days to figure out how to collect the surveying data, but there were more hurdles to come. Laying the transect lines meant that we had to have a straight path across the jungle of a channel that is completely dominated by Himalayan blackberry. This meant that we had to use loppers to cut back all the brush and blackberries in the way–that was fun!  Covered in cuts and scrapes and dirty as heck we managed to laugh our way through the struggle.

The paths were clear ,we knew what to do, and still no cigar. When we went to attempt a fourth time we realized that there was no way to secure the transect line on the opposite bank and that we needed help.  We went back to class, and with Caroline’s encouragement, we were able to recruit the lovely Amy and Danielle to help us hold the transect line secure and to help us record data. Ta-da! We had all the components for success finally. The four of us went out to the sites and busted out all three collections in roughly three hours.

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A transect site that needed a lot of brush clearing. ©Jasmin Perdue

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Jasmin reading the stadia rod through the auto level. ©Jordan DeSilva

The collections and struggles within them have secured in our minds that restoration ecology is no joke, but that with hard work and determination it can be done and the learning process is always interesting.

Our Rainy Adventure at the Laguna de Santa Rosa

By: Jessi Laughlin and Jasmin Perdue

Our class got the opportunity to take a tour of the Laguna de Santa Rosa located off Highway 12 just outside of Sebastopol. Wendy provided us with some articles from Brent Reed (our tour guide and Ecological Program manager for the Laguna) to read and give us an introduction to the area and the changes that have taken place. It was neat to see some of the historical photos of the Laguna.

The morning started out with a downpour that caused us to leave a little later than usual. The weatherman said the rain would stop mid-morning but all we could do was keep our fingers crossed. Wendy called Brent to confirm we were still good to go and we were! Our very soggy group pilled into the vans and away we went.

We were greeting by Brent and Aaron and only a few sprinkles. Brent started our tour at Meadowlark Field where 3,000+ trees and shrubs have been planted as part of the overall restoration work in the Laguna. What was once a recreation area that later developed into a dumping ground is now being restored and preserved as the unique wetland it is.

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Signage showing the history of Meadowlark Field. Photo © Jasmin Perdue

This area was the most recently restored part of the Laguna. Brent took us on a “journey through time” and we saw restoration work through the last decade. He shared photos of the area before restoration work had begun and little landmarks helped orient the photos for us to see the progress in plant growth.

The riparian corridor of valley oaks, Oregon ash, and box elders thickened as we progressed on the path. Brent pointed out that the wildlife seemed more abundant along the corridor as well. We came across a unique land bridge that is utilized by the Laguna Foundation that has to be removed in the winter due to flooding. This flooding is very important for the vernal pools nearby. There is an endangered plant that calls these vernal pools home. Aaron talked about some of the restoration efforts that have involved the process of disturbance and even some herbicide use when the endangered species is dormant.

The rain returned just in time for lunch. We struggled to open a little shelter tent and finally got it opened once the rains started to die down. The next part of our trip was planting basket sedge. Using the tools Brent and Aaron provided we cleared the top soil (and hopefully an exotic seed bank) for planting. Two large trays of basket sedge plugs were waiting to be planted. We planted in three different plots and then mulched with straw to help reduce exotics from germinating and to keep the moisture in the soil.

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Cutting back the top layer of soil. Photo © Jasmin Perdue

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Amy planting a basket sedge plant. Photo © Jasmin Perdue

With the rain gone and the plants in the ground we cleaned up to head home. We were so grateful for the time and information that Brent and Aaron shared with us. The Laguna de Santa Rosa is a diverse watershed that is moving towards healthier functions. It’s a beautiful place that we are lucky enough to have right in our own backyard. There are trails for the public to enjoy and we highly recommend it.

Amorous Newts and Grass Impersonations: A Cold Adventure on Sonoma Mountain

By Kathleen Grady

It was a cold and blustery afternoon on Sonoma Mountain two days before Thanksgiving. Most of the Restoration Ecology Class had already headed home for the holiday, but a few hardy souls interested in grassland restoration, California Red-legged Frogs, or the potential for extra credit points decided to band together on an unofficial, not-at-all-a-field trip type outing. We ventured to an area normally not accessible to the public—the Mitsui Ranch. This easement is managed by the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation, a non-profit with the goal of making cattle ranching in California both ecologically sound and profitable.

Thanks to fellow Sonoma State student Keith Wellstone who is conducting research there, we were able to visit Sonoma Mountain Ranch and learn about the restoration techniques used at the ranch and the interesting organisms that call this beautiful place home.

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View of the property at about 2,000 feet of elevation, photo courtesy of K. Grady

Grassland Restoration

First, we met Jeff Wilcox, the managing ecologist for the Foundation. He gave us some background about the history of Mitsui Ranch, and about California ranchland in general.

Mitsui Ranch is roughly 632 acres in size. Like much of California’s grasslands, it was overgrazed for many years and kept under fire suppression, which allowed non-native annual grasses to takeover as the dominant pasture plants. Although some are decent forage for cattle, many actually provide less nutrition for the cows, or, are downright inedible. The Foundation acknowledges that many of these non-natives will persist, but they are also trying to restore the California native perennial bunch grasses, both for ecological reasons, and for ecosystem services: the native grasses are often better for and preferentially eaten by cattle. The Sonoma Mountain Preservation Foundation proposes combining best grazing practices and management with restoration to enhance both sides of the equation.

Chief among the inedible is medusahead, Elmus caput-medusae, a grass with silica in its cell walls that produces a thick thatch layer that crowds out any other species. Fortunately, medusahead has almost no seed bank and with regular prescribed burning, it can be nearly eliminated from the system.

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Medsahead monoculture, photo courtesy of Meridian Jacobs Weblog

Jeff took us out to a 10 acre plot that had been burned in 2014 and reseeded with a mixture of native grasses that were historically present or present in nearby systems, and are also known to be good cattle forage. Apparently with the drought last year, there wasn’t a ton of growth, but Jeff remains hopeful for this year. The plot is also further divided into transects for additional scientific research, and it includes a few small exclosure plots that will show plant growth in the absence of grazing.

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Small fescue (Festucha microstachys) a native annual good for forage, photos courtesy of Robert E. Preston

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Jeff doing his Festucha impersonation, photo courtesy of C. Christian

Amphibians and Stock Ponds: A Benefit of Cattle Ranching

After visiting the grassland, we went to check out some of Keith’s study areas. He is doing spotlight surveys for threatened California Red-legged Frogs (Rana draytonii) at the Ranch. Following the mating season, he will also be surveying for egg masses. These frogs persist at Sonoma Mountain Ranch because of the cattle. Cows need water, and so active ranches maintain stock ponds for them. These muddy bodies of water provide choice habitat for Red-legged frogs.

Keith and Jeff both grabbed chest waders and nets and hopped into a cold stock pond to catch amphibians for us. Although we didn’t find any Rana draytonii, we did encounter another of nature’s wonders: Mating California Newts (Taricha torosa).

Photos courtesy of W. St.John, C. Christian, and K. Grady

Male newts’ skin gets slippery and their tail fins and forearms enlarge to swim after females more quickly and then grab on for mating. Several pairs were floating around in the pond. It was great to see them up close!

Photos courtesy of W. St. John and K. Grady

Working Lands Work

Overall it was a great, if chilly, visit to a local example of conservation in action. Working lands can be great resources for wildlife and people, helping us to maintain some of California’s wild places as well as providing us with ecosystem services, directly in the form of meat and dairy, and more indirectly, with carbon sequestration and open spaces. It was definitely a trip to be thankful for.

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Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata) by K. Grady

Restoration Unfolding at the Laguna De Santa Rosa

By Angelica Andrews Buot, Kelly Grieve and Jenna Topper

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Seasons changing at the Laguna. Photo © W. St. John

On November 6th, 2015, our restoration ecology class caravanned our way over to the Laguna De Santa Rosa in Sebastopol, only about a 20 minute drive. We left the vans and gathered around in a circle to meet Brent Reed, the Restoration Projects Supervisor of the Laguna De Santa Rosa Foundation. Brent introduced us to Aaron Nuñez, their Restoration Technician, and one of their kind interns. Brent gave us information about the Laguna as well as his involvement with the area over the years. We checked out the map of the Laguna and made on our way to see the restoration project that we would be helping work on.

 

Lowdown on the Laguna

Brent shared a wealth of knowledge with us. The Laguna de Santa Rosa is the largest actual freshwater wetland complex on the northern California coast and of extreme importance. This area of land has fostered a variety of different  activities over time. Laguna De Santa Rosa Watershed’s past gives insight on public preference of land uses. Sebastopol at one point added to the discharge, which resulted in multiple lawsuits. There were multiple instances of unsanitary conditions, which led to improved handling of sewage and discharge. At one point sediment pile up was encouraged because it reduced the risk of mosquito born diseases which was a large issue at the time. To our surprise, in the 1930’s there was even a small airstrip and a hangar that resided next to one of the old oaks. What a neat place with a wild history.

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1933 airplane and hangar near an iconic oak. Photo Credit: John Cummings & Pacific Coast Air Museum

 

Pulling up Mesh, and More Mesh

Many projects are happening on the Laguna, and after learning about some of them, Brent led us to the site of restoration that we had the privilege to work on.  Brent and Aaron walked us over to the restoration site and explained the goals of the impending workday.  Because this site is fairly close to Highway 12 and the plantings of native species appeared controlled and organized, the site did not feel very wild or natural.  However, farther away from the road the landscape looked denser and more wild because the vegetation from previous years of restoration work has had more time to develop.  The bulk of the day was spent ripping up squares of mesh that had been laid down with each planting of a native

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Steven tossing out mesh. Photo © W. St. John

species.  This mesh was laid down in the beginning to discourage weeds from competing with the native plant being planted.  However, now that most of these natives are bigger, competition from weeds is not a huge threat.  Besides removing mesh, plastic cups that once held the baby plants were cut and removed, allowing for the roots of the now developed plants to further expand into the surrounding soil.  The native plants involved in the restoration were species such as Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis),  California Wild Rose (Rosa californica) and California Blackberry (Rubus ursinus).

 

Walking through the Laguna

After a few good hours of work and cleaning up the no-longer needed tools of mesh, plastic yogurt containers, and wooden stakes, we stopped under a few shady oaks for a lunch break. Then Brent led us on a trek through different areas of the Laguna. We passed through the “Hemlock Forest” and talked about restoration methods to remove and replace it eventually. Brent even touched on the famous invasive Himalayan Blackberry (main invasive of Copeland Creek) and their strategies of extraction. We passed by a seasonal bridge which will take you to the western side of the Laguna.  Together we made a few stops, learning more about the area and wound up by the pond before we were on our way back to the vans.

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Walking toward vernal pools. Photo © W. St. John

This was truly a great Friday. The sun was shining on us, and it was good to get out there, put in some hard work, and see some of the many facets of restoration. Brent thanked us tremendously for all the hard work that was put forth by our class. It is truly amazing what 30 hands can do in such a short amount of time. It was just another example that showed how community support can be largely advantageous to each aspect of Restoration.  The Laguna Foundation is an incredible organization and we’re grateful for what their doing for our community (they even take interns and volunteers kayaking down the Laguna when it floods).