Deschutes River Conservancy
Deschutes River is one of the defining characteristics of Central Oregon. As our region’s cities have grown, many community leaders have helped to responsibly guide and shape this growth to maintain the quality of life we all enjoy today.
Since 1969, Brooks Resources, chaired by Mike Hollern, has been a leader in preserving the character of Bend. Brooks creates planned communities that “enhance, rather than degrade, the natural environment,” according to Mike.
Mike is a founding Board member of the Deschutes River Conservancy. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that preserving the trees, improving water quality and increasing water quantity in the Deschutes River are priorities for the company. “These are the reasons people live here, and we strive to build communities that provide residents with connections to our stunning natural environment,” says Mike.
One such enhancement is a river-friendly hydropower plant upstream from the Bill Healy Bridge in Bend. Brooks Resources, developer of the adjacent Mount Bachelor Village Resort, helped Central Oregon Irrigation District plan the project to have minimal visual and environmental impact. Profits from power sales fund water conservation projects around Central Oregon.
Another example of the company’s dedication to the preservation of the natural environment: the DRC receives funding through the Oregon Community Foundation from each developer sale in its North Rim community. These funds have helped to restore much-needed flows in the Deschutes River.
The Deschutes River runs through many aspects of Mike’s and his wife, Sue’s, lives – including their home on Mirror Pond. “We are always aware that we are privileged to live on the river,” Mike said. “It reminds us every day of our good fortune, and motivates us to protect and nurture the wonderful environment surrounding us.”
“I hope that Central Oregon will grow steadily and thoughtfully while maintaining its unique character and natural advantages,” Mike said of the future. “Without the Deschutes River, Bend wouldn’t be here. It’s the life and soul of this community.”
Rimrock Ranch is a gorgeous 1,120 acre property situated along Whychus Creek near Sisters. When owners Gayle and Bob Baker moved to the ranch nearly two decades ago, they fell in love with the wild nature of the property. In order to protect the area from future sub-division, Gayle and Bob worked with the Deschutes Land Trust to establish a conservation easement for the entire ranch.
“Whychus Creek is the life of the ranch,” said Gayle. “Nature is life here, and we need to protect and enhance it wherever and whenever possible.”
Everyone who lives in Central Oregon has a stake in the Deschutes River and tributaries like Whychus. Some depend on the rivers and streams for their livelihoods, some for recreation – and nearly every ecosystem in the region depends upon them, too.
This is why landowners, communities, agricultural, recreational and other interests are working together to find long-term solutions that address both human and environmental needs.
Gayle believes the collaborative approach is essential. “The Deschutes Basin can regain its beauty of wildness, recreation, wildlife and vegetation only through the efforts of all,” she said. “The economic, spiritual and living values need to be taught to everyone.”
Whychus Creek itself has benefited greatly from flow and habitat restoration projects over the past decade. The Deschutes River Conservancy and our partners – the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, the Deschutes Land Trust, the US Forest Service and Three Sisters Irrigation District – have worked together to restore healthier conditions for salmon and steelhead in the creek while maintaining local water rights for agriculture.
“Chuush” is the word you’ll hear at the beginning and end of any ceremonial meal in Warm Springs. It means water in the Warm Springs language, Ichishkiin. Held in the highest regard by the Tribes, water is believed to be the first gift given by the Creator. Water is the giver of life.
The Warm Springs reservation is home to nearly five thousand tribal members and is downstream from the cities of Bend, Redmond and Madras. Unlike their neighbors upstream who draw their drinking water from other sources, the water in Warm Springs comes from the Deschutes River.
Because water plays such an important role in tribal culture and life, it is no wonder that the water quality of the Deschutes River is of the utmost importance to the Tribes. To ensure this precious resource was protected, the Tribes worked with local water interests to form the Deschutes River Conservancy in 1996.
“We need to be respectful of these resources,” said Deanie Johnson, a life-long Warm Springs resident. “We need to be able to make future generations understand why the river is so important.” While much work has gone into restoring flows in the Deschutes River, tribal members like Deanie would like to see more attention paid to water quality — a responsibility we all share.
“When you turn on the faucet in Warm Springs, you can smell the chlorine before the water pours out. It’s really amplified here because our water comes straight from the Deschutes River and needs to be treated quite a bit before we can drink it. We need to be respectful of that water and I hope that the rest of the basin can be mindful that there are people living downstream from them.”
Deanie Johnson is a Wasco tribal member living in Warm Springs along the Deschutes River. Water is the most important resource for the Warm Springs tribes and Deanie was kind enough to spend some time with us to share her perspective.
Talk a little about your guiding business.
I started Deep Canyon Outfitters in 2009 after working with another outfitter for 4 years, and before that, yet another outfitter for 3 years. In total I have 13 years experience guiding fly fishing trips in Central Oregon. While the majority of our clients come to wade the famous waters of the Lower Deschutes, we offer guided trips on the Fall River, Crooked River, Upper Deschutes, and the Cascade Lakes. In 2013, we took 1300 guests fishing, hailing from around the country… if they were experienced anglers, they came to fish the Deschutes River. In 2014, I’m projecting to take 1500+ guests fishing. We have 7 full time guides and 4 part time guides on staff. The health of the river is not just important for me, but for everyone who works for Deep Canyon Outfitters.
Why is the Deschutes River important to you? Why do you care?
The river has many layers of importance for me… for my business – it is imperative for the ecology to be healthy and for the river to support the reputation as the greatest fishery in Oregon. Without a healthy river, the trout and steelhead my clients want to catch would not exist. Without trout and steelhead, Deep Canyon Outfitters may not exist. Without Deep Canyon Outfitters, my staff would not be able to support their families and values. Without my staff, I would not be able to function as a business owner, a resident of Bend, and a caretaker of the Deschutes River.
On a personal level – for me the river is important because it is my home. I learned to fly fish on the famous rivers of Montana, but I developed the lifelong passion for the sport, the fish, and the connection with nature on the Deschutes River. I eat, sleep, and walk its banks over 125 days a year.
There are few rocks, trees, and fish on the Deschutes that I’ve not met. Protecting the resource that I rely upon for sport, spiritual connection, relaxation, and commerce seems natural.
Why are you part of the Deschutes River Conservancy?
I’ve been a DRC board member for the past 8 years and in that time I’ve seen dramatic changes to the river – much higher flows, better ecology for the fish, and reintroduction of salmon and steelhead in the upper basin. None of this would have happened without the work of the Deschutes River Conservancy.
The collaborative process employed by the DRC is, in my estimation, the only option for meeting the needs of every water user in the basin. While I see the importance of more water in the river for fish, I can empathize with other users and understand their water needs to support their way of life. If we don’t work together we all lose.
Why is it important to restore flows in the Upper Deschutes?
The Upper Deschutes river was historically a more productive fishery than the famous Lower Deschutes river. In the late ’70’s and early ’80’s the Upper Deschutes was heralded as the best fishery in Oregon. Restoring flows in the upper basin would return this fishery to its potential. Even small additions of water will have a huge impact – riparian zones will be kept intact during the winter months protecting both habitat and valuable food sources. The economic potential is vast – little to no commercial fishing is done below Wickiup dam today, but a productive fishery coupled with demand for fishing from the boat and close access from Bend would bolster the Upper Deschutes’ economic importance. If the fishing were better in the Upper Deschutes, Deep Canyon Outfitters would have many guests fishing up there, enjoying the scenery and the fish.
What benefits do you see in the river when there are higher flows and lower water temperatures?
Over the past 10 years of fishing the Middle Deschutes River I’ve seen the impact of higher flows and cooler water. The vegetation in the riparian area is fuller. Although this can make angling and casting a challenge, the positive is that the trout populations seem to be more robust, and the insect hatches are extremely prolific. No longer do I steer clear of the Middle D in the summer months. The fishing from late June through early September is much more productive than the days of low flows.
In your view, what is the best possible outcome of the flow restoration process for the Deschutes Basin?
For me and my way of life, the best possible outcome is to increase flows below Wickiup dam to a minimum of 250 cfs from mid October to mid April and recreate a Blue Ribbon fishery near Bend. What I like most about the DRC’s approach is that the goal is not just to restore flows in any one section of the Deschutes basin, but to work with all the stakeholders to create the most efficient water management system. In my mind, without all aspects of water use being upgraded to maximum efficiency, we are wasting the resource. The truth is there is not enough water for everyone’s needs, but by understanding each other’s most important needs we can work to meet them. No one can deny that agriculture is important to the central Oregon economy and way of life, and that water is a crucial element for the economy. By maximizing efficiencies in reservoir management, farm delivery, and on farm use, the amount of water saved will be great. That water can then be used to meet the need of other stakeholders – including the fish!
What value do you see in this process?
Beyond conserving water for fish and wildlife, I see great value in bringing our community together to talk about the issues, set goals and create success – together. Through the DRC’s collaborative process I have gained better understanding and more respect for the agriculture community – especially those in the North Unit district. I better understand how important the river, and the water they use to grow their crops, is to them. My hope is they have gained the same understanding of my needs, and in doing so, they will work to reestablish the Upper Deschutes River to the high quality fishery it once was.
Damien Nurre is a local fishing guide and also serves on the Board of Directors for the Deschutes River Conservancy.
We can look forward to a higher flowing, healthier Whychus Creek this summer as a result of the latest in a series of restoration projects that have revived this Sisters creek.
Once a dry creek bed in the summer months, Whychus Creek now flows year round and fish populations are starting to rebound. In addition to an increase in streamflow, Whychus has been a gem of collaborative conservation efforts over the years with large-scale riparian rehabilitation, removal of fish passage barriers and replanting of native plant life.
In this spirit, the Deschutes River Conservancy, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and the U.S. Forest Service are working together with long time Sisters landowners at the Pine Meadow Ranch. The project will replace their concrete dam with a more efficient and fish-friendly pump. Eliminating the water lost through the unlined ditch that previously conveyed water to the ranch will result in the permanent protection of one cubic foot per second (over 646,000 gallons of water per day) of senior water rights in Whychus Creek. When the project is complete this fall, salmon and steelhead will have access to thirteen miles of previously inaccessible habitat as well as a restored reach just below the existing dam site.
These pioneer water rights are some of the oldest in the Deschutes Basin, dating back to 1880. In addition to the benefits for flows and fish in the Creek, this project will strengthen the 135-year long tradition of farming at the Pine Meadow Ranch by enabling the ranch to continue irrigating in a more efficient manner.
The Deschutes River and its tributaries are fed by melting snow from the Cascade Mountains. When we get rain and warmer weather in the winter and early spring, it melts the snow pack, sometimes dramatically increasing stream flows and thereby reducing the amount of snow stored in the mountains. That means less snow remains to melt into stream flows during the summer and fall.
As of February 21st, 2014, snow pack in the Cascades is at 62% of normal. We will need a significant increase in spring snowfall to turn this around.
Talk a little bit about your farming operation. I am a third generation Madras area farmer who has taken over the family farm and has expanded the acreage as opportunity has allowed.
We grow carrot seed, garlic seed, grass seed, alfalfa hay, grain hay and both spring and fall wheat, all of which is irrigated.
Why is the Deschutes River important to you? Why do you care? I grew up on this river. We farm quite a bit of ground that borders the Deschutes canyon. I have a shop full of fishing rods, so the river is important on several levels. I need the water for irrigation, and I love the recreation and wildlife it supports. It is also our legacy to make it better than how we found it. Most of us did not cause the problem, but we can improve it, and help mitigate our influence. Once again, take a look at your life, if there was no river would you be here? I know I probably wouldn’t, and honestly most others wouldn’t either. I believe the river is the lifeblood of Central Oregon–that is how important it is.
Why are you a part of the Deschutes Water Planning Initiative process to restore flows in the Upper Deschutes? Without irrigation we could not survive here, it is our livelihood, and in being so, makes any decisions on the Deschutes very important to our operation. I think it is great that we have such a broad base of stakeholders in this process and I guess I am trying to make sure agriculture is represented. I sit on the board of directors for North Unit Irrigation District, as well as being in commercial agriculture so it is a natural fit.
You don’t have to be involved in the flow restoration process, why do you choose to? WHY be involved? I say why not? The Deschutes River is a precious resource for all of us and it is going to take all of us to preserve it. The river influences so many lives in Central Oregon that most people don’t even realize the extent of its grasp on day to day life. Tourism, agriculture, lifestyle, land values, employment, and general commerce to name a few. The Deschutes River and its tributaries are why we are all here in one way or another. There is a deep affection for the river and people have very strong opinions about how it should be managed. So you have two people adamantly voicing their opinion about the river, both just as passionate, but from different ends of the spectrum. Who has the right? Both do. Who is right? Both can be, but there are laws governing the water and where or what can be done with it. This is where the opportunity lies, in educating and participating, to get everybody to come to a broader understanding of the problems and opportunities involved in this process.
How long have you been farming? I personally have been farming on my own for17 years, but grew up helping out where ever I could. Whether I wanted to or not. About half the acres we have now were from when my grandfather started in 1947.
What do you do to use water as efficiently as possible? Most of our ground is irrigated with sprinklers–predominately wheel lines–and the little bit of flood irrigation we have runs into pump back collection ponds which allows us to reuse the run off. We have also invested in a couple of drip irrigation systems which allow us to target root zones more efficiently in our carrot production. As funding and time allows, the systems are being upgraded for efficiency as well. The biggest things are the sprinkler systems and our ponds which allow us to maximize our efficiency. Water is life around here.
In your view, what is the best possible outcome of [the flow restoration process] for the Deschutes Basin? I would like us, the stakeholders, to be more involved in the management of the river. I think there is plenty of water most years, but it is a change in how we manage it that is needed. Cooperation and creative use of the storage and natural flow could make a huge difference in what the river could be. They need to let us be creative and work together by moving water around and best utilizing it when and where it is needed most.
What value do you see in this process? Cooperation and understanding are two of the biggest things that can be accomplished in this process. Everybody needs to understand how the system works and why it is managed the way it is. Once you have that, then a discussion can be had with an understanding of why we have to do some things and can’t do others. The system has certain designs in it that are purpose built and can’t be discounted, but they can be modified or even changed with the right plan. It is getting everyone’s ideas out there and finding ways to improve what we are doing. The potential is there.
In the past year, DRC and our partners have improved fish habitat in the Crooked River by ensuring streamflows up to six times greater than they had been in the past. We expect to improve those streamflows even more in the near future.
In Sisters, spawning grounds in Whychus Creek are primed for reintroduced steelhead spawning, thanks to new standard flows which now meet the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recommendation for a thriving fishery and ecosystem.
Steelhead have access to two more miles of increased flows in Whychus Creek thanks to a collaborative project with theUpper Deschutes Watershed Counciland other partners.Watch the time lapse video of the dam removal.
Two weeks ago a large quantity of trout and other fish species became stranded and died in a side channel of the Deschutes River, near Meadow Camp and Lava Island, southwest of Bend, Oregon. The staff at the DRC is deeply saddened by the death of these fish on the Upper Deschutes River. This tragedy highlights the complexity of the flow issues that have been affecting the Deschutes River for decades.
Unfortunately, this year we are experiencing the unintended consequences of water management policies and practices that have been in place for many years. In a dry year like this year, the reservoirs, Wickiup, Crane Prairie and Crescent, were drawn down very low and water managers are obligated to refill them to serve existing water rights for irrigation season next year. These low streamflows led to this side channel drying up, stranding hundreds of trout and other aquatic species, many of which perished.
The DRC launched the Deschutes Water Planning Initiative in 2012 to tackle this complex water management issue. It is a collaborative stakeholder process with the goal of restoring streamflows in the Upper Deschutes River while simultaneously meeting the water needs of irrigators and municipalities. The DRC’s streamflow goal is to restore 300 cubic feet per second to the Upper Deschutes River, meeting the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s instream water right and flow target for a healthy, thriving fishery and ecosystem.
Lasting solutions will not occur unless all basin stakeholders, including all water right holders, are invested in a collaborative process to develop an integrated water management plan. The DRC and partners hope that this plan will provide the basis for water management agreements to consistently restore streamflows in the Upper Deschutes River while meeting agricultural and municipal needs. As the next critical step in this process, the DRC, the Deschutes Water Alliance and other instream interests have formed a Basin Study Work Group to obtain a Bureau of Reclamation Basin Study. This study will provide the modeling and empirical data needed to move forward with streamflow restoration in the Upper Deschutes River.
You can help this process by becoming more aware of how our river is managed and the efforts currently underway to restore streamflows in the entire river system. At one time, the Upper Deschutes had a stable flow regime that supported a blue ribbon trout fishery. As we make progress devising solutions to meet the needs of the fish, farmers, cities and the Tribes, hopefully, these types of tragedies will be a thing of the past. For more information about the DRC: www.deschutesriver.org.
Originating at the base of Bend Glacier on Broken Top in the Cascade Mountains, Whychus Creek tumbles down through the City of Sisters before flowing into the Deschutes River. As a snowfed, undammed stream, Whychus Creek is subject to large fluctuations in streamflow depending on precipitation and snowmelt.
Two weeks ago, we witnessed just how variable this system can be with a ten year water event resulting from the weekend’s heavy rainfall. Sunday night, water levels in Whychus Creek surged from a seasonal average of around 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) to well over 1000 cfs in a thirty minute time period. That’s a 1000% increase in streamflow!
“This is an extreme event in Whychus Creek, but not unheard of considering the variable nature of the creek,” said Zachary Tillman, program manager at the Deschutes River Conservancy. “You wouldn’t see this kind of event in the Deschutes River, for example, where dramatic fluctuations in flow are reduced by the porous nature of the geology of the drainage area.