Conservation agreement helps creek

Jan 28, 2014

Sisters Nugget

Conservation agreement helps creek By Jim Cornelius

After years of negotiation, working out a host of complicated details among property owner and agencies, a critical section of Whychus Creek will be restored to its natural condition.

Next fall, the concrete irrigation diversion dam that has served Pine Meadow Ranch (PMR) for decades will be removed, allowing the creek south of town to return to natural, meandering channels. As part of the $2 million project, a 1.25-mile run of the creek will be restored, including approximately 42 acres of habitat. The agreement reached this month also returns one cubic foot per second (CFS) of water to the creek.

The agreement involves PMR, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, Deschutes River Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service.

PMR will have a new point of diversion for its irrigation, using a pump to provide the water, with fish screens to keep fish in the creek. The current irrigation ditch and pond will be decommissioned. Ultimately, PMR will have a more efficient irrigation system. Though power bills may be higher, maintenance of the dam, ditch and pond will no longer be required.

"We're filling in the ditch already," said Cris Converse, daughter of PMR owner Dorro Sokol. "We'll start burying the pond probably (this) week."

The loss of the three-acre pond will be keenly felt by those who have fished it for years.

Sokol, 87, has owned Pine Meadow Ranch since 1971. The crop then was peppermint, but the bottom fell out of that market and the ranch now specializes in mixed-grass hay. For her, there were a number of pragmatic reasons to make the changes. Primary among them was the ongoing difficulty of dealing with the temperamental creek.

"That creek has a mind of its own, and it goes where it wants to," she told The Nugget.

The water would jump the channel and the ranch would have to push it back -which nowadays is no simple matter. Working in the creek requires multiple agency approvals.

Maintaining the ditch was also an ongoing battle.

"The rednecks had to run their rigs in that ditch and we'd have to repair it every year," Sokol said.

And the success of creek restoration in the past decade-and-a-half made restoration of quality fish habitat and steelhead runs more than a distant dream.

"The fish are getting up here and that had a lot to do with us wanting to be cooperative," Sokol said.

For Converse, working out a Conserved Water Agreement seemed the best way to cope with the inevitable.

"Things are gonna change," she said. "So let's work with these people so we can get the funding and so we can be good neighbors."

A willingness to work together didn't mean things would be easy.

"It's been a very long-term effort," said Tod Heisler, executive director of DRC. "These things don't happen overnight."

"We explored many, many options," Converse said.

One critical point was that any option must preserve PMR's very senior water rights. The final agreement does that.

"They're not giving up anything in terms of seniority and that was very important to them," said Ryan Houston of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.

The ranch irrigates 160 acres off the creek - and will now do that with 110 acres of water rights, which retain seniority. So, PMR is giving up some water, but increased efficiency is expected to make that a wash.

While individual agreements do take time, the overall restoration of Whychus Creek has proceeded much more quickly and effectively than anyone might have thought in the early 1990s. There have been many successes in restoring flows through people returning water rights into the stream and through irrigation piping projects.

Heisler noted that "we've gone in the past decade from 0 to 20 cfs." The target is 33 cfs down to the mouth of the creek.

Success builds on success. Agencies, non-governmental organizations and property owners have been cooperative, the broad Sisters community is enthusiastic about restoration and funders have confidence in projects.

All that has "really helped us amplify the pace and scale of restoration," Houston said.

Sisters Ranger District biologist Mike Riehle noted that "berms constructed in the past have blocked off the flood channels that may have been important to steelhead trout and chinook salmon historic habitat."

Restoration of natural channels and floodplain will enhance fish habitat. Riehle said that the Forest Service project is integrated with the dam removal.

"The Forest Service is about to issue an Environmental Assessment on the project and invite public review," he said.

With each project, including extensive work with the three Sisters Irrigation District, the organizations and agencies involved in restoration come closer to the ultimate goal of a healthy, thriving Whychus Creek that resembles the natural waters that flowed through Sisters Country more than a century ago.

"It's been years and years in the making," Houston mused. "It's fun to see it hit its stride."

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