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A creek surrounded by trees at Pike Run.

In the park along Pike Run in California Borough, a multifaceted project is transforming the habitat for fish and aquatic insects, as well as anglers, nature lovers, students and community residents.

Through a contract from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program at Cal U, led by program coordinator Jose Taracido, began the stream mitigation and streamside restoration project in late August.

The California Borough Recreation Authority, Pheasants Forever, Army Corps of Engineers, Washington County Conservation District and Department of Environmental Protection also have roles in the project.

And when the restoration is complete, Cal U students will begin a five-year effort to monitor the stream and the surrounding area under the direction of Dr. David Argent, of the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences. 

Streamside improvements

Partners for Fish and Wildlife has been busy installing rock weirs to alter water flow, log dams and other features in the stream between Coal Center and the Route 43 overpass.

Workers have planted trees and removed fencing and non-native plants, such as Japanese knotweed, to make more space for fishing and recreational use.

A trail with steps at either end is being constructed so anglers and hikers can walk safely from Mechanic Street down to the stream and along its banks.

Plans also include a gated road and crossing to make it convenient for borough workers to mow grass and keep up the park.

“But this is not just a beautification project,” Taracido stressed. “We must show improvement in the fish and insect habitat, as well as the water quality. The potential is there now. Before, it was nothing more than a gravel bar with 3- to 4–inch-deep water.

“When this is done, it will be like a national park for the borough and the community.”

The impact of each element in the park project has been carefully planned. To make the dams, for example, hemlock logs were drilled and fastened together, then dug into the stream so only the top log is visible. This creates a waterfall that alters the stream’s flow to reduce erosion along the bank and create a deeper, better-oxygenated pool for fish.

“Nothing we’ve put in here obstructs the movement of fish,” said Taracido. “The fish must be able to come out of the river (at Coal Center) and go upstream and jump these dams if they want to spawn.” 

Student follow-up

As part of the project, Cal U will monitor the stream and provide PennDOT with an annual report about its water quality, aquatic life and insect communities.

Students from the American Fisheries Society and Cal U’s ichthyology (fish science) and ecology classes will be involved, Argent said.

“We need to give the stream a couple of weeks to settle down. Then we’ll go out this fall, and again in the spring and so forth over the next couple of years to keep track of things.

“I do expect a reduction of sediment in there, which will be good because that will increase the habitat complexity.”

The ongoing project, just a short walk from campus, will be a valuable learning experience for students, Argent added.

“This will provide them some hands- on experience and the opportunity to participate in a bio-monitoring and assessment project. Obviously it will give them some ideas about macroinvertebrate and fish identification, too.”

The project also will give students material for research projects and presentations on campus or at conferences.

“I think all of us are looking forward to seeing what the finished plan looks like,” Argent said.

“Come the first day of trout season

when the fishermen arrive, it will be very interesting to see how well the trout hold in some of these areas.”

Senior Austin Hess, an environmental studies major with a concentration in fisheries and wildlife biology, is excited to monitor the changes.

“Due to my major and loving fishing, I would love to see improvement on the stream. It already looks great,” said Hess, a member of the Americana Fisheries Society. “Having gone to school here for four years now, I know how important Pike Run is to this community.

“The work being done on Pike Run is very exciting and I am really looking forward to sampling it again once the work is done.”

Community effort

Pat Alfano, president of California Borough Council, praised Cal U for its role in the collaborative effort.

“It was so encouraging to see many different departments come together to make this happen,” he said. “It’s a huge improvement.”

The Pike Run Youth Fishing Festival, a popular event for more than 20 years, also will benefit from the improvements.

“The kids are going to just be absolutely thrilled and amazed” when they see how much area has been cleared along the stream banks, Alfano said.

“Any type of recreational opportunity we can provide our community is great. This is something we will showcase and be proud of.”