Dam on Whychus to be removed

July 27, 2012
Dam on Whychus to be removed

Removal will improve habitat for steelhead and spawning salmon

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin
Published: July 27. 2012 4:00AM PST

A small old dam on Whychus Creek in Sisters is set to come out next year, removing one of the last blockages for spawning salmon and steelhead on the stream.

“There is a lot of good habitat upstream of this area, so it is important for those fish to migrate upstream,” said Mathias Perle, program manager for the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.

The Bend-based nonprofit is waiting on $55,000 in two federal grants to help cover the $200,000 overall cost of the project, which also is being funded by state lottery money and contributions from farmers who used water from the diversion. Perle said the grant likely won’t be finalized until later this year and the wooden dam probably won’t come out until next summer because state rules only allow work on the creek between July and October.

The base of the dam is a couple of feet tall and about 25 feet wide, he said. When the dam was in use, plywood slats, or checkboards, were added to boost the height to about 5 feet during irrigation season and push water into the diversion.

When the checkboards were in place, the dam actually forced water into side channels, as well as the diversion, which allowed for some fish passage. Now that the dam is abandoned, its base is a barrier for fish.

He said the goal of removing the dam is to allow fish around the dam, no matter the time of year or flow level in the creek. Once it is gone there will be only two other small blockages created by diversions left on the 40-mile creek that cause barriers for fish, both upstream of the dam set for removal. The hope is to find ways to move fish around those as well.

“We’ve been working on lots of little projects like this,” Perle said. “What we want to achieve is unimpeded passage throughout the (Whychus) system.”

Since 2008, the group has completed two projects to improve fish passage and add screens to keep fish out of diversions in four places along Whychus Creek. The largest project was on the largest diversion along the creek, the $2 million screening of the Three Sisters Irrigation District, completed last year.

The long-anticipated return of adult salmon and steelhead to Whychus and other tributaries to the Deschutes River started this year, with salmon already being trucked around the Pelton Round Butte Dam Complex and steelhead expected to arrive soon.

Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs combined to build a $100 million submerged fish tower, completed in late 2009, to help young salmon and steelhead swim downstream. The dams had stopped runs of both fish for about 40 years.

Along with helping salmon and steelhead, removing the diversion dam in Sisters will improve mingling of redband trout populations along Whychus Creek, said Brett Hodgson, district fisheries biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“It’s another step forward in the right direction to help both resident and (oceangoing) fish reach their potential in the Upper Deschutes,” he said.

To make the removal of the diversion dam in Sisters possible, the main user of water from it, the Leithauser family, had to be willing to sell its water rights, said Scott McCaulou, program director for the Deschutes River Conservancy. The family did so last year, selling the conservancy the right to about one cubic foot of water per second during irrigation season. The diversion drew about 100 million gallons of water from the creek per year.

McCaulou and Floyd Leithauser, 63, declined to discuss details of the deal. But McCaulou said the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Pelton-Round Butte Mitigation Fund helped pay for it.

When in use, the dam created a popular swimming hole on Whychus Creek, but now the dam is a danger to people curious enough to climb on it.

Although the dam itself likely won’t be removed until next year, Eileen Stein, Sisters city manager, is hopeful a maintenance bridge on the dam will be taken out this year. She said it is no longer safe.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

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