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Through the years, students in the Casa Grande High School's United Anglers program have worked hard to protect salmon and steelhead in the Petaluma watershed, doing everything from growing fish in their own hatchery to protecting and enhancing habitat in area creeks. But, perhaps the students have never undertaken a more important project than the one they began working on this summer.

The students, working with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, are surveying the entire Petaluma River watershed. The program, called "Habitat Typing," is designed to determine what type of habitat exists in each of the watershed's creeks, the extent of each stream's fish-carrying capacity and other environmental factors. The work is extremely detailed, and involves extensive field work as students meticulously record the environmental characteristics of each section of each creek.

"We have been dealing with steelhead habitat for the last 30 years, so in a way we've come full cycle," says Dan Hubacher, the instructor/leader of the Casa Grande program. "The project was founded on bringing steelhead back to Adobe Creek. The students saw that the steelhead numbers were so low they wanted to do something to help. We started with Adobe Creek, and now we want to look at the whole watershed to determine what type of habitat there is, and what it will hold at the multiple stages of the fish's life."

Hubacher says accurate data is important because just visual observations can be deceiving. "Just because you see a dry creek or a dry section, it doesn't mean that anything is wrong or there aren't fish in the creek," he notes. "There may be pockets of water where there are still fish. I've seen salmon or steelhead in every one of the creeks in the watershed."

Specifically, the project objectives are to estimate the abundance and productivity of steelhead in the Petaluma River watershed; collect data about genetic diversity of steelhead in the watershed; and gather information for a comprehensive evaluation of habitat condition.

Obtaining the information is not as simple as going out in the field and observing the creeks.

"We need the community's help," explains Hubacher. "Most of the watershed is on private property, and we need the landowner's permission before we can go onto their property." He says he has sent out 250 letters requesting permission to conduct the research on private property, and has received fewer than 50 replies.

He says that only a handful of students (two-to-five) work at one time and they are under his direct supervision.

"We're not taking a whole class onto the property, and they have all been trained in how to conduct the survey without interfering with the environment. Liability is not an issue. We carry our own insurance."

Hubacher emphasizes, "We're not Fish & Game. We just want to know where the fish are able to go and what the habitat looks like. We can't make any decisions until we know what's out there."

One of the areas the students have been denied permission to access is the crucial Adobe Creek headwaters located on the politically sensitive Lafferty Ranch property owned by the city. Neighbors have long argued there is no public access to the property, claiming there is a privately owned gap between Sonoma Mountain Road, which leads to Lafferty Ranch, and the land itself.

The project is also an excellent educational opportunity for the students. Before starting, all the participating students went through an intense three-day training program, learning about not only the environment they were expected to encounter, but also how to measure things like bank slopes and current stream conditions. "There are a lot of measurements, math and geometry involved," Hubacher says. "Some of the things they are doing you don't get until graduate school or on-the-job training. I am absolutely amazed at what they are able to do."

There are about a dozen students involved in the program, working as teams throughout the summer. Hubacher says the study is so important that the project will continue into the school year, delaying the arrival of the steelhead eggs that will be hatched and the small fish raised in the school's hatchery so that students can continue working on the watershed project. "We'll still raise our fish, but with this study we have an opportunity to make a difference in our own community with our own fish," he explains.

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@arguscourier.com.)